Telegraph Avenue feels a lot like Chabon’s attempt to write a Dickens or Tolstoy novel. Although it takes place exclusively in Oakland, it has an epic, world-weary quality to it, as its characters pass in and out of each others’ lives through fate or coincidence. There’s a plot, mainly circling around the music store owned by Archy Stallings, a black man, and Nat Jaffe, a Jewish one, and a lot of subplots, the most interesting of which revolves around Luther Stallings, Archy’s father, a washed-up blaxploitation actor trying to finance a new film and reconnect with his very estranged son--but it doesn’t feel like Chabon is primarily interested in turning the narrative cogs. He’s clearly world-building here, trying to make a character of Oakland the same way Joyce did of Dublin in Ulysses, an acknowledged influence on Telegraph Avenue.
That said, a book with a meandering main plot needs to keep its focus on its most interesting characters, and Chabon sometimes does, sometimes doesn’t. It’s good when he’s spending time with Julie Jaffe, Nat Jaffe’s gay son, and Titus Joyner, Archy Stallings’ illegitimate offspring, and when he’s showing Gwen, Archy’s wife, and her partner, Aviva, Nat’s wife, running their midwifery business, and when we’re with Luther Stallings, as mentioned earlier. Archy and Nat, on the other hand, never clicked with me, and although the fate of their record store is the linchpin for much of the books denouement, it never carried much weight. I don’t want to be hard on Telegraph Avenue, because I enjoyed it. At times, though, it felt like a 250 page novel trapped inside a 600 page tome.
There was one other thing that bothered me about the novel, and that is that, at times, it feels like Chabon is engaging in cultural appropriation for the novelty of it. Things like the black folks in the waiting room at the hospital saying, “Oh shit!’ when a confrontation occurs, or the extensive digressions, from Gwen’s mouth, about being black in America, or the unbelievably bad section told from Senator Barack Obama's point of view. It’s not that Chabon shouldn’t have written about these things (well, maybe the Obama POV should've been cut), just that they sometimes felt like they could have been handled better, more realistically, more sensitively... differently, at least. This isn't something that usually bothers me in novels, but I couldn't get away from it here, even if I can't quite articulate why.
There are moments of transcendence here--Chabon is a very good prose stylist most of the time. I particularly liked a section in the middle which self-consciously emulates the Penelope section of Ulysses, covering the entire town and all the ongoing plotlines in one, long sentence. Ironically it's here, where things should feel most excessive, that they feel most controlled, and that Chabon seems to wrest control of his book away from digressions and toward the main event. It's just too bad those moments are separated by so many pages.