Part 3 (of 3) Review of “Telegraph Avenue” by Michael Chabon

In two previous posts I have discussed Telegraph Avenue: first generally (see Part 1 here), and then more particularly (see Part 2 here). In this post, I would like to talk about Chabon’s talent for well-constructed lines.

Reading Chabon’s prose reminds me of sipping a rich wine with a complex bouquet, in the way that it keeps revealing new aspects of itself as you go through the steps of inhaling its aroma, sampling its taste, and catching the late flavors that are introduced to you after swallowing.

I want to share some of my favorite examples of his expertise from Telegraph Avenue (even while adding the caveat that I found much more to love in two of his previous books, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union).

In this sentence, Chabon is describing a group of older men at a Sports Card show:

…all the men with potbellies and back hair and doughy white faces, heads balding, autumn leaves falling in their hearts.”

Look at that amazing last clause, “autumn leaves falling in their hearts.” In the first part of the sentence, we are a bit put off by the unappealing image of these oldsters dealing in memorabilia. But then, by adding such a lyrical and evocative ending, we are confronted by a rush of sympathy for these men, as we contemplate how the colorful moments of their pasts are slipping leaf by leaf from the trees of their lives. We gain an immediate understanding of why these packs of nostalgic cards mean so much to them, and feel, with them, the sadness of the onset of their winters. What a wonderful emotional and aesthetic lift the second half of the sentence gives to the first!

Later, Chabon is describing the father of the protagonists, a sort of a loser who considers most of his life a failure except for one heroic moment:

…a high point in a life lived at sea level, prone to flooding.”

Note how much we learn about this man just from this one phrase, and how crisply it is constructed. And if you read it aloud, you can hear how euphoniously the second part complements the first, even as it both narrows it in, and provides the punch.

I also loved this bit, in which 14-year-old white Julius observed an older white guy trying to appear “hip” by speaking “ebonically” to a room full of mostly blacks:

Julie wanted to die of his own whiteness, to be drowned in the tide of his embarrassment on behalf of all uncool white people everywhere when they tried to be cool.”

Chabon conveys perfectly the self-consciousness of a young teen, combined with the self-consciousness of someone with a liberal view of the world writhing in inner anguish over the obtuseness of less enlightened race-mates.

But perhaps my favorite quotes from this book are these two adroitly fashioned metaphors:

In the first, Archy, the co-owner of a used-record store, muses over the way his life seems to be repetitive and without purpose. He thinks of

…every day, dropping like a spindled platter on top of the next…”

How beautifully apt! And how much meaning and nuance are packed into that compact space!

In the second, upon seeing a fountain full of coins, one of the characters contemplates

…the scattered wishes of pennies and dimes.”

One can hardly imagine a better visual expression to the scene; one that simultaneously conjures – yet again – the thematic ideas of nostalgia, regret, and spent [sic] hopes and dreams.

Some have seen Telegraph Avenue as predominantly an exercise in writing rather than an exercise in story-telling. And there is some truth to that observation. But I enjoyed both the story, and relished the writing. Chabon masterfully combines allusions from all over to distill meaning into his statements. Like a fine chef, he can ransack the pantry in his mind for words and ideas and concoct a superb dish full of sensory delights.

Telegraph Avenue is published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2012

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7 Responses

  1. These quotes illustrate a genius most of us can only marvel at. The ability to illustrate a life, a person, an event in just one brilliant phrase – it’s a miracle.

  2. I enjoy this sort of writing only if the metaphors and similes are spaced out in the text. Even the most genius metaphors make me want to toss a book if I feel like I’m tripping over them every other sentence.

  3. Jill, you certainly have convinced me to read it. After I read Ulysses, of course. :)

  4. I love your enthusiasm for this book and author. He’s written a few YA books so I might try one of those!

  5. I agree with you that Chabon’s writing is like a gourmet meal … no “brainless” fun reads from him. His descriptions are amazing … but I”m wondering if I’m ready for this yet. Maybe I’ll do Yiddish Policemen next.

  6. Chabon is definitely brilliant. I wasn’t as wild about this story but there’s no denying the man can write like nobody else.

  7. Oh, Jill, I was already convinced, and then you wrote this extremely potent review, and you made me click the buy button. I can’t ignore writing like this. I just can’t ignore it. Has anyone ever told you you write beautifully?

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