Audiobook Review: Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

17 09 2012

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

Read by Clarke Peters

Harper Audio

Length 18 Hrs 42 Min

Genre: Literary Fiction

Quick Thoughts: While I struggled to get a grasp on Telegraph Avenue early on, the struggle eventually reaped some rewards. Chabon’s latest offers an indicate, pop culture infused character study of two families whose personal and professional lives intertwined. Although I found the characters maddening and often frustrating, I also found them engaging. This is a novel I may not have finished in print, but the wonderful narration of Clarke Peters kept me in the game long enough to become ensnared in the story.

Grade: B

I knew before I hit play that I would struggle with Telegraph Avenue. I am not someone who tackles of books on the literary side of the book store. I like my zombies and space aliens and drunken detectives solving  unsolvable murders. I like plot driven genre fiction where things explode and the main character always gets the girl, or guy depending on their preference. Yet, every once in a while I like to take literary side trips, and it helps if I do it with someone I trust. I have read Michael Chabon before, both his Pulitzer Prize winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and his children’s novel Summerland. Yet, both of these novels has appealed to me because they had some fantasy elements. With Telegraph Avenue, we have what I fear most in Literary Fiction, a character study. I struggle with character studies, because I tend to like things to happen fast. Yet, in Telegraph Avenue Chabon tells an intricate story of two and families whose personal and professional lives intertwine, set against the background of an Oakland neighborhoo in 2004. It’s a pop culture infused look at the life of two friends, one black and white, as they struggle to keep their business, a used record store, afloat in a era of gentrification and urban sprawl. 

There is a line early on in Telegraph Avenue, where Archie is talking to Mr. Jones, explaining that the reason he hasn’t yet completed the repairs he promised was because he’s been distracted by many things. Mr. Jones, in all his wisdom reply’s with something like, "Well, if you focus on the distractions, then the distractions will become your focus." This line is both prophetic, and does a good job summing up my feelings about this novel. Telegraph Avenue is about the mixed priorities in out lives. It’s about the how the so called distractions in these characters lives, were really what was most important, yet these characters never seemed to grasp that idea. It took me a long time to get into Telegraph Avenue, but what really drew me in was my frustration with Archie.  Archie was so focused on hating his father and trying to honor the man he looked at as his main father figure, that he lost focus on being a good husband and father. He was so focused on what Mr. Jones wanted him to do for him after his death, he neglected what Mr. Jones wanted Artie to do with his life. It maddened and frustrated me, to see this man focusing on the true distractions in his life, instead of seeing past them to what was truly important. This maddening aspect was truly what began to win me over to the story.  Yet, what truly grabbed me was the character of Gwen, Archie’s pregnant wife. I fell in love with her story, and every time the story moved away from her, I wanted it to go back. Gwen was the only character here that I felt really had a journey in this tale and it made me angry that so many key moments in her tale became relegated to off camera.

The other thing Telegraph Avenue did was make me confront my prejudices, major and minor. I don’t think it’s surprising that the two incites into race that I seemed to grasp, both came from white characters. At one point, Nate’s wife Aviva talks about Gwen’s reaction to being diminished as a black women, and she says,  "I know nothing about being a black woman." I found this statement to be apt, yet like the distraction statement, Aviva’s actions throughout this novel, particularly in dealing with Gwen’s aspirations, went against this notion. She seems to have no qualms with pushing how she feels Gwen should be feeling and behaving on to her.  At one point Nate says, "Black people live in a fantasy world, it’s just somebody else’s fantasy." This is another prophetic sentiment that plays out in this story and may even be a better descriptor of Aviva’s true mindset.  Yet, my biggest challenge was understanding Julius, Nate’s gay son. Earlier Mr. Jones talks about how he feels sad for Julius, not because he had anything against gays, but it was so hard life for someone so young. I wanted to feel sorry for Julius, but he seemed to go against the typical gay teen that you see in fiction. He was sort of goofy happy, and self aware. He accepted not just himself, but that his fantasies were actual fantasies. His relationship with Titus, as a straight man, was hard to understand and I just couldn’t help but feel there was something wrong with it, yet, they both seemed to accept it for what it was, and while it saddened me, it didn’t really seem to sadden the characters. Telegraph Avenue was a tough one for me. It’s definitely outside of my literary comfort zone, and it took a lot of work for me to get into it. Yet, I liked it. It’s hard for me to say exactly why I liked it. No one element blew me away. The plot was thin, but present, and the characters were frustrating, maddening and hard for me to understand at times, but always engaging. Chabon does tie it all together with a lacing of pop culture, some hip, wordy prose and an almost jazz like style where you need to listen just as much for what he doesn’t say as what he does. It was an interesting experience, and if you are willing to do the work, a rewarding one.

I will admit freely that I probably never would have finished this novel in print. The first third of the novel was full of exposition, introducing every character both major and minor, but never really distinguishing them enough  to keep a grasp of them in your head. If it wasn’t for the narration of Clarke Peters, I doubt I would have stayed long enough to be fully pulled in. Yet, Peter’s voice gives Telegraph a deep, funky vibe. Listening to Peters read Chabon’s prose was like listening to a good jazz band, you may not get what they are doing, but it sounds so good. When the book finally clicked for me, Peters took it up a notch. I was actually impressed with his range of voices. You would expect him to handle the older male characters with ease and style and he does, but he really nails the female characters as well. One of the harder things for adult narrators to do is to present believable teenage voices, but he does an excellent job with Titus, and even young Julius, a Jewish, gay, comic and martial arts loving geeky teenager. One of the reasons I did listen to Telegraph Avenue was to hear one of my favorite actors narrate a novel. Peters truly brought these characters alive for me, and I hope to see him take on more audiobook narration in the future.

Note: Thanks to Harper Audio for providing me with a copy of this title for review.

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One response

21 09 2012
DevourerofBooks (@DevourerofBooks)

From what I’ve gathered I probably would not finish this in print either. I may still have to give the audiobook a try at some point.

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