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