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

Telegraph Avenue has not had a plethora of overly positive reviews; it sprawls and stalls and showcases and shows off, but to me, it is still a treat for literary connoisseurs, and especially, fans of James Joyce’s Ulysses.

I realize this could be a small subgroup, but it shouldn’t be. Let me digress by recommending Declan Kiberd’s book, Ulysses and Us. In this entertaining book (with its wonderful cover, shown below), Kibard asserts that Ulysses was intended for “ordinary” people,” and maintains that it can and should be read and savored by everyone. One of his more persuasive arguments is that passages seemingly obscure are meant to be obfuscatory: they illustrate the pedantry and effete intellectual engagement of the young protagonist, Stephen Daedalus. Joyce, Kibard holds, is laughing at Stephen along with us.

Also, and most interesting [and even more digressively], Kibard notes that at the time Joyce wrote Ulysses, the “common man” of Ireland would, in fact, have been familiar with many of the references we now find opaque. For example, curricula (and newspapers of the time) were steeped in Irish history, and of course all the Irish were well-acquainted with Catholic liturgy. Moreover, the schools of the early 1900’s expected much more of students than those of the early 2000’s – most students would have had a solid familiarity with Shakepeare’s Hamlet and Homer’s Odyssey, both of which form the scaffolding that supports Joyce’s famous circadian tale.

And of the parts unfamiliar to readers? Joyce, Kibard avers, strongly believed in the value of literature as a medium for self-improvement.

Like Telegraph Avenue (as I will be demonstrating in the posts ahead), The Odyssey tells a story about fathers and sons; a marriage defined by one partner obsequiously faithful and one partner who is given to wandering (in one way or another); and a journey (interior or exterior) of penance and redemption. Joyce in Ulysses takes these themes and reformulates them in a variety of formats that reflect the thrust of each chapter, including a famous last chapter that has 4,391 words contained in only eight sentences.

Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue is in many ways an updating, an ethnicizing, a take-off, and a tribute to Joyce’s tour de force, including a chapter with only one sentence consisting of 4,000 words. If you haven’t read or don’t like Ulysses, you many not appreciate Telegraph Avenue in all of its flights of prose and layers of meaning. But you don’t need to have read any of Chabon’s classical forebears to read this book; it will add to your appreciation to have done so, but there is much to like about the book even aside from the literary allusions.

More on that in my next post. I have three posts in all on this book. The next two are here:

Review of Telegraph Avenue, Part 2

Review of Telegraph Avenue, Part 3

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


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18 Responses to Part I (of 3) Review of “Telegraph Avenue” by Michael Chabon

  1. Beth F says:

    I think my instincts to pass on Telegraph Ave were correct.

  2. I have a feeling I’m not smart enough for this book or Ulysses.

  3. sandynawrot says:

    I’ve not read Ulysses…it scares me. But I was really pretty shocked at how negative the reviews for this book were. He is like the golden child of literature!

  4. I decided to skip this one, mostly because I haven’t gotten on well with Chabon in the past. Will be back for the next post…

  5. zibilee says:

    Ulysses scares me too, Jill! I have it here, but have never read it, due to the intimidating structure and language. I haven’t heard a lot of good things about Telegraph Avenue either, but I am still interested!!

  6. Huh, after reading some reviews of Telegraph Avenue on Amazon etc… I had pretty much written it off. I actually may give it a try now. The way you presented it is compelling, and I am personally a fan of Ulysses and James Joyce. It sounds like I will have to be in the right frame of mind before taking on this read though so I will probably wait for just the right moment! Perhaps a snowy day where all that can be done is to curl up on the couch next to the fire with some hot cocoa and a thought provoking book.

  7. Well I only made it about 150 pages into Ulysses, and then felt the need to move on. My husband and I still own our matching copies of the book though; neither one of us giving up on the book for good, just for the time being. I’d love to audit a class on it someday just to learn more about it (without the pain of having to write term papers). 🙂

    I’ve actually read some positive reviews of Telegraph Avenue. I will be looking forward to the rest of your posts about it.

  8. bookingmama says:

    Ok. Your review just convinced me that I’m probably not smart enough (or well-read enough) to read this one!

  9. June says:

    These books remind me of what I had to read in high school…I’m long out of high school, but now they sound to “over my head”! Lol…Thanks for the review of something fresh and different, though.

  10. I second Kathy’s comments. I need a dictionary…my head hurts!! 😀

  11. Jenners says:

    Oh dear. I impulsively bought Telegraph Avenue and now you are scaring me!!! I’m scared of Ulysses and now I’m scared of Telegraph Avenue!! ARGH!

  12. I’m not sure this one would be for me. I read Portrait of an Artist as a Young man, and I had a really hard time with it. I never attempted Ulysses.

  13. Care says:

    yea, right. OK. I have attempted Ulysses and have never read Chabon. Actually, this is the first I’ve heard of Telegraph Ave.

  14. litandlife says:

    Ah, see now you’re making me wish I had read Ulysses, something you’ll very rarely hear me say!

  15. Pingback: Part 2 (of 3) Review of “Telegraph Avenue” by Michael Chabon « Rhapsody in Books Weblog

  16. claire says:

    This sounds very intriguing, Jill. I haven’t read Ulysses but have every intention of doing so someday, hopefully sooner than later. Afterwards, then, I might give this Chabon a shot. I haven’t yet read any Chabon, though I have Kavalier and Clay on the TBR which I also intend to read soon.

  17. stacybuckeye says:

    You lost me at Ulysses.

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