Souled out

Telegraph Avenue, by Michael Chabon, Fourth Estate, RRP£18.99/HarperCollins, RRP$27.99, 468 pages

As publishers’ descriptions go, it does nothing if not aim high: “A Californian Middlemarch set to the funky beat of classic vinyl soul-jazz.” Tempted? As readers of fiction, we may ache for the rigour and resonance of classic literature, yet too often flounder in the flimsy matters of our own time. Must it be so? Can the “unhistoric acts” that contribute to the growing good of the world, memorably described in George Eliot’s novel, work their magic in a contemporary setting? And who among today’s writers is best-placed to put such a view forward by threading the high-energy frolics of pop culture with the intricate thickets of human affairs?

Michael Chabon, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, makes a more than respectable fist of it in Telegraph Avenue. It is a novel, set amid the eclectic social landscapes of northern California, that deals in big themes: art, money, birth, death. But it is strikingly a novel of our time: the art is low, the money vulgar, the bookends of life described with harrowing physicality and a rich sense of the absurd.

Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe run Brokeland Records, a store whose varied clientele and modest turnover keeps them interested enough – but no more than that (“Like the army: find a cold dry place to stash your mind, and hang on until it was over”). Archy and Nat are married, respectively, to Gwen and Aviva, the Berkeley Birth Partners, midwives committed to fighting the over-medicalisation of childbirth with holism, hokey and hope.

The two pairs of couples, married and professional alike, are under attack from modernity itself. Brokeland Records, a charming but anachronistic hang-out, is threatened by a chain megastore. The Berkeley Birth team makes a calamitous error of judgment and may fall victim to a lawsuit. The pressure is on. But pressure, 21st-century style, is what Brokeland and Berkeley Birth stand against. What chance do they have against high capitalism and high science? Especially when lives are disrupted by the sudden appearance of Archy’s long-lost teenage son, and an unravelling murder plot that may or may not involve his father, a former kung-fu movie star?

Chabon marshals his forces with brio, and there is a palpable sense of self-enjoyment in his dense prose. That makes it easy to forgive some almost comical overwriting (“Valetta checked out the shadows and rustlings up and down both ends of the street one more time, ran the broom of her paranoia up the quiet little pond of a street built around a pocket playground that some unknown amateur of children had tucked, like an Easter egg, on to an island of grass in the midst of Sixty-first Street”).

But along with the exuberance, there is brilliant attention to detail. Chabon’s California is a hybrid of hippy and corporate aesthetics, in which new ethical boundaries are still under delicate (and not-so-delicate) negotiation. A doctor’s office epitomises this, “freely mixing elements of a second-hand furniture showroom, a real estate title company and the Ministry of Truth from 1984”.

Chabon sets his ambitious plot among the detritus of mid-1970s blaxploitation pop, and it helps if you are familiar with Star Trek, Marvel Comics and Tarantino movies (think Jackie Brown). It is a shrewdly chosen backdrop: an era dripping with charisma, but no golden age, full of sleaze, racial strife and casual violence.

Chabon’s writing is simply too clever to fall for the tropes of pop nostalgia. There is a fashionably postmodern moment when the young senator Barack Obama intervenes in the proceedings (which take place in 2004), but the urgent throb of emotional complication beats throughout. The bravura set pieces (in particular a visceral description of a difficult childbirth) serve a broader theme: the entanglements of parenthood and, by extension, of all human relationships.

Why does Archy feel a “pathetic residual loyalty [to an absent father] who had done nothing but squirt some key proteins into his mother’s belly”? And how does Gwen, feisty and feminist, square the joys of giving birth with the sudden possession of the idea “that she was about to bring another abandoned son into the world, the son of an abandoned son”.

This is a searching examination of fatherhood and of male crisis. Finally, Chabon’s man-boy anti-heroes shape up. They understand that there is more to the world than the glamour of kung-fu movies and the crackling virtuosity of those vinyl masterpieces. They learn about compromise and getting your financial affairs in order.

Chabon’s most telling contribution to pop culture is to describe its limitations even while submitting to its allure. Archy belatedly recognises that there are deeper issues at stake, that it was, after all, “all about the neighbourhood, that space where common sorrow could be drowned in common passion as the talk grew ever more scholarly and wild”. That’s an ideal to give comfort to any culture, expressed here with a vivacity that is hard to resist.

Peter Aspden is the FT’s arts writer

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