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Michael Chabon and the rising floodwaters of ‘Brokeland’

Detail of an illustration prepared for the print version of this story

Daniel Zender

Telegraph Avenue
Michael Chabon

While the Bay area is known for earthquakes, Chabon is interested in tectonics of a different sort: the friction generated by a local history of countercultural fervour, working-class activism and racial consciousness. Telegraph Avenue explores how these subterranean tremors shake the shared foundation of two families, their faith "that real and ordinary friendship between black people and white people was possible, at least here, on the streets of the minor kingdom of Brokeland, California."

Coreligionists in the church of vinyl, Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe run Brokeland Records, specializing in "trash, curb fruit, the bitter residue of a yard sale." Their clientele consists of teenage turntablists, vintage geeks, and habit-bound locals who have been coming to their store ever since it used to be a barbershop. The shop isn't so much a small business as a shrinking one, worn down by Archy and Nat's profound indifference to sales and the prospect of a music megastore opening down the street.

The partnership is at a crossroads; Archy in particular is "tired of being a holdout, a sole survivor, the last coconut hanging on the last palm tree on the last little atoll in the path of the great wave of late-modern capitalism, waiting to be hammered flat."

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Chabon admires the passion of dedicated fans and amateur scholars of popular art. He writes for and about geeks, lovingly. Venerating collectors over consumers, the author sees in their enthusiasm (for, say, comics) a utopian spark that the market, seeking the commodification of everything, banks into a quiet but consistently profitable flame. Sure, such zeal may be nostalgia for the lost idyll of childish things, but nostalgia is powerful, indicative of a dissatisfaction with the given and a yearning for things to be otherwise.

Indeed, whether couched in terms of vinyl, cult film or sports memorabilia, nostalgia is the subject of Telegraph Avenue. The novel's soundscape is central to this, but music is not the sole focus. Geeks of every sort litter this text and the conclusion points to the liberating potential of yet another fanboy trend: online gaming, where your avatar can be anyone or anything, unconstrained by race or gender. (Oddly, though, the coming domination of digital music is nowhere mentioned.)

It's not always clear, though, whether the novel is about nostalgia in some critical sense or merely nostalgic, sentimental for whatever lies behind the Instagram filter (or, more accurately, for the filter itself). With the exception of the Obama episode, there are so few markers of the novel's present it seems as if Brokeland exists in a hermetically sealed bubble, its inhabitants caught in memory's amber. It's surprisingly inert – at least until Archy and others face up to the fact that choices have to be made, that change is unavoidable, that a life spent curating the past means you are never actually present and, finally, that this epiphany never comes in time. As it says in the Carole King song – played as one character's requiem – "It's too late."

Offered a job by Gibson Goode, a former NFL quarterback, fifth-richest black man in America and, more to the point, proprietor of the very concern looking to put Brokeland Records out of business, Archy has a choice to make. Does he stubbornly stand by his friend or strike out on his own and provide for his family?

Archy's decision is complicated by the fact that his very pregnant spouse, Gwen, and Nat's wife Aviva are partners in a midwifery practice, a relationship that is subject to strains of its own in the aftermath of a risky delivery. And the expectant dad is in the midst of what can only be called a generational crisis occasioned by the shocking loss of one father figure, the unwelcome resurfacing of another, and his long-overdue admission that he has a son of his own. In the last decade, Chabon writes, "Archy had never thought of the boy, not once, a habit of oblivion that continued even now, with the kid back and smacking up against the outside of their life like a moth banging against a lampshade."

Set in August, 2004, Telegraph Avenue features a surprising cameo in the person of then-Illinois state senator Barack Obama, fresh off his career-making speech at the Democratic National Convention. The inclusion of Obama – yet another unfathered son – is a bold choice on the part of the author, one bound to be read by some as a partisan gimmick in the charged atmosphere of American election-year politics. However, in a novel that maps the racial faultlines fracturing the American landscape, Obama represents the optimistic vision of an otherness that is celebrated and ultimately absorbed as part of something larger, what the author calls a Brokeland Creole.

A writer of great compassion and charm, Chabon is best known for his playful embrace of genre conventions in works such as The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and The Yiddish Policemen's Union. While eschewing the overt formulae of popular fiction, Telegraph Avenue is a portrait of the men to whom such conventions most appeal. (Chabon's women, as the author ruefully notes elsewhere, never seem as fully alive in his fiction as their male counterparts.)

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In the early going, Telegraph Avenue moves at a leisurely pace (the same speed as an avid collector fingering stacks of vinyl) and is self-indulgent to the point of parody in its sprawling appreciation of a collection of 1970s artifacts and attitudes categorized by the author as "hopeless Berkeletude" (think leisure suits, blaxploitation flicks and kung fu). The narrative impetus is further stalled by the logistics of introducing a sizable cast of characters, not to mention an elaborate and not particularly compelling backstory touching on the Black Panthers, municipal redevelopment and, of course, the secret history of the Stallings clan. In decanting the past, Chabon savours nostalgia like a fine wine, but it's the reader who feels disoriented.

However, once all of the pieces are in place, the author sobers up and sets the plot into motion by assigning to his characters the sombre task of mourning Cochise Jones, legendary jazz player and Archy's surrogate father. This sequence is rendered in one spectacular sentence, 12 pages in length, which flits from one character's perspective to the next, the chorus to a song you want to go on forever. But it doesn't last, nothing ever does, and with this hard-won knowledge, Telegraph Avenue's motley assortment of dreamers and schemers begins to face up to the business of living.

In an oddly precise gesture in what is otherwise a joyously shambling affair, the novel's climax unfolds on the morning of Aug. 29, 2004. Though the author studiously avoids making the parallel explicit, the date itself is portentous: exactly a year to the day before Hurricane Katrina washed away American complacency about the stubborn persistence of racial inequality. Striking a silent counterpoint to Obama's cameo, this merciful ignorance is about our own nostalgia for our recent past, a moment that Nat characterizes as one of "hope unfulfilled, not yet betrayed." It's an echo from the future, made all the more poignant by our foreknowledge of what is to come, progress and calamity both – a black president, yes, but rising floodwaters as well.

Matt Kavanagh is a professor of English at Okanagan College.

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