Book Review: Telegraph Avenue; Michael Chabon.
[This was the seventeenth book I read in 2013 as part of my GoodReads Book Challenge. My aim is to read sixty books over the course of the year.]
Michael Chabon is one of my favourite recent discoveries as a reader. Whilst I’ve yet to fully read his back catalogue of works, the vast majority of the works I’ve read I’ve either enjoyed, or in some cases absolutely adored, and would consider among my favourite reads. Wonder Boys, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay are among the best books I’ve read in recent years and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend them to almost anyone.
So it was with a great deal of anticipation that I started reading Chabons’ latest, Telegraph Avenue. Set during the summer of 2004, Telegraph Avenue, which mostly takes place in the aforementioned street connecting North Oakland and Berkeley, primarily focuses on two central characters – Record store co-owners Archy and Nat. As the proprietors of Brokeland Records the book starts with both characters focused on preventing former NFL player Gibson Goode opening a megastore just around the corner from their already struggling music emporium…
Normally at this point in a review I’d focus more on the characters and plot – expanding on the background slightly whilst remaining true to my attempt to make my review as spoiler free as possible, so as to not potentially “ruin” the experience for future readers. I’m not going to do that this time, for one central reason…
This book bored me to tears. At less than 500 pages it felt almost twice as long. GoodReads – the site I’m using to track my reading habits for 2013, indicates the longest book I’ve read so far this year is Stephen Kings’ 11/22/63, which clocks in at 849 pages. 11/22/63 [review incoming – once it’s finished I’ll edit this sentence to include a link] was a joy to read. Telegraph Avenue, by comparison, felt like pulling teeth.
I tend not to ascribe scores / stars to the books I’ve read, at least not when it comes to reviewing and or recommending them. On GoodReads however, I do give ’em a rating, though because GoodReads doesn’t have half-star options, often times those ratings are either a little lower, or higher, than I’d like.
Telegraph Avenue I rated as 2/5. As of the writing of this review I’ve read twenty two books so far in 2013. Telegraph Avenue is one of only three books to “score” less than 3/5 – the other two being John Grishams’ The Broker, and Noir, by Linda Mannheim. Whilst those two books weren’t spectacular, for me Telegraph Avenue is the most disappointing book I’ve read so far during the year.
Michael Chabon is a fantastically gifted and skilful writer. When he uses that command of language, and uses it to tell a story filled with interesting and memorable characters, inhabiting wondrous and fascinating settings, the end results truly are a joy to read. Whether it be the story of a murder investigation in an alternate history version of Alaska. Or a novelist turned lecturer struggling with his second novel. Or two young cousins grafting away to create a comic book superhero, for which Chabon would receive the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction – when Chabon takes that command of language, and applies it correctly? The results can be truly wondrous.
Unfortunately Wondrous isn’t a word that can be applied to Telegraph Avenue. Chabons command of language and prose remains – as the following excerpt from the book on the subject of fatherhood demonstrates:
Fathering imposed an obligation that was more than your money, your body, or your time, a presence neither physical nor measurable by clicks: open-ended, eternal, and invisible, like the commitment of gravity to the stars.
The problem, however, is that whilst the “quality” of the writing remains impressive, the character development is severely lacking. A good book can overcome sub-par writing, if the characters and plot are interesting. If you’re invested in a book – be it the central characters, supporting characters, the setting etc. etc, then – at least for me – I can overlook the quality of the writing.
But even a beautifully written book will leave a reader cold if they can’t connect with it. Such, for me, was the case with Telegraph Avenue. Despite Chabons’ best efforts to draw the reader into the world the book and characters inhabit, for me I couldn’t connect with it. It didn’t really “ring” true.
In short? I really couldn’t recommend Telegraph Avenue – either to people looking to get into Michael Chabons’ works, or to existing fans. If you want to read a Michael Chabon book? I’d recommend either Wonder Boys or The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. If you’re after something a little longer? The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.
And if you feel the urge to read a book that’s primarily set in a record store? Check out Nick Hornbys’ High Fidelity. Whilst the focus of the novel differs vastly from that Chabon was attempting to address within Telegraph Avenue, High Fidelity is actually worth reading.
Unlike Telegraph Avenue.