Michael Chabon – Telegraph Avenue

In literature there a different ways to approach the presentation of your novel. One can choose content over style. A message is to be conveyed to the reader and the style has to support this as effectively as possible. An other option is to let style be the driving force. The content is thus set up in such a way that it supports and strengthens the style and allows it to be used to its strongest effect. In the latter case the difficulty lies in finding the right balance. The style should not dominate the story but take it to a higher level.

In Telegraph Avenue (2012) by Michael Chabon goes all the way with the second approach. It takes place about 10 years ago but its content covers more than 50 years of popular culture. And not just a bit. The novel is a continuous barrage of cultural references. Almost every sentence counts. It is impossible to avoid. It is almost overwhelming and most impressive is that Chabon never goes over the top. All he puts in every sentence matters to the atmosphere and the scenes within the story, describing them within the reference frame of the narrator’s point of view. They live by these. They have grown up with these cultural phenomena and Chabon makes them very much part of it.

It is indeed style over content. It is so powerful that while reading your brain is hit with so many impressions and associations that I had trouble keeping up. I simply had to take many breaks and eventually I decided to read the novel more slowly by taking it along on my daily commute back and forth from work so that I could not read it for more than 10 to 15 minutes at once. It was the only way I could read it in a good way.

So effectively Chabon did not keep the balance as mentioned before. The style was too dominating. With so many extensive references every scene got expanded to large clouds of refined prose. Eventually this started to hamper the story. Chabon normally manages to create strong plots in which you can connect well with the characters. He has always had an excellent style that supported the story without it being to much there. That is not the case with Telegraph Avenue. Once you take away the style the plot lacks sufficient substance. It drives on several storylines which only have a limited extent. Chabon does not go as deep as usually and this affected the impact of the story, which in my opinion is the core of any novel. You can do much with style but without balance it will not reach its mark.

Telegraph Avenue is not just about style and popular culture references. Chabon creates several wonderful pairings with his characters. There are six main points of view although only two of them from the more dominant main protagonists. Each of these six are connected to several of the others in different ways. Chabon uses this to great effect and develops their relationships in a powerful way. The novels contains a large cast and many of the side characters are fleshed out in their own unique ways. Chabon creates a wide palet of the diversity of American society. While others prefer to use more average characters, Chabon goes for the slightly odd ones. They feel very familiar and none feel out of place.

Chabon also hits on many different themes. Different from his usual fare is that the Jewish element is pretty much absent. Telegraph Avenue is mostly about African American culture and he shows there is much variety to be found there as well. There are so many smaller and greater themes that it almost seems hard to give them sufficient attention but Chabon manages it all well.

Telegraph Avenue is an incredibly rich novel, a tour de force by an author who has already made his mark and who continuous to write in an easy going way, providing humorous and dramatic moments within the same scene although it never goes dark or overboard. The only point where it failed for me that the style dominated over the story. I did not connect much with it and unlike previous novels it took me longer to finish the novel. With the others it was harder to put them down. The story, while deeply layered and rich with details, could not make as much impact on me as other novels that were driven by the story and in which style stayed in the shadows. Because of this I rate Telegraph Avenue among my least favorite Chabon novels. The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union outshine it easily. I have to admit here that I like his work a lot so being low on the list is still quite above the average contemporary novel. I still recommend this novel because in many ways it is an impressive work of literature.

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