We often read novels for the thrill of a plot. We look to a novel to move us along a series of events that grab our attention, that keep us engaged in another story, another world, to alleviate boredom and excite our imaginations.
Sometimes, what excites us falls along the lines of Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians about the difference between “permissible” and “beneficial.” And Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue both promises and delivers a plot so scandalous that some might wonder what is beneficial about it at all: an old murder, family secrets, adultery, illegitimate children showing up on doorsteps and a series of relationships so broken you cannot imagine any way for them to be repaired.
But by the novel’s end, what we are given is a chance to rework - and redeem - the why and how of our reading habits. By the novel’s end, we are brought to understand and love the characters of Telegraph Avenue in a way that transforms us from consumers - people who read for titillation - into neighbors, into readers who are invested, patient and looking for connection.
In the novel’s first pages, we meet Archy Stallings, a Berkley record store owner who, on the verge of fatherhood, introduces himself to us by browsing blues records, getting stoned and recalling the oral sex given to him the night before by a woman other than his wife, who is due to deliver his child any day.
What is surprising about Archy - and is surprising about all the characters in Telegraph Avenue - is that his flaws do not diminish the depth of his interior life. He may sleep around, but he also carries fears and insecurities that, if we are honest, hinge on our own as well. Archy’s own recollections of his deadbeat father, who “paid his child support on time,” couch Archy’s meditations on fatherhood with a bittersweet, illuminating realization:
“Fathering imposed an obligation that was more than your money, your body or your time, a presence neither physical nor measurable by clocks: open-ended, eternal and invisible, like the commitment of gravity to the stars.”
It is the way that characters find themselves obliged to one another, in the various strains on their relationships, that drives the plot of this novel. There is Nat Jaffe, Archy’s business partner, who fears the imminent loss of Brokeland Records to a NFL superstar’s incoming chain music franchise; Gwen, Archy’s wife, whose midwifery business with Aviva Jaffe (Nat’s wife) faces a crisis that fractures a decade-long friendship; Julie, the young gay son of Aviva and Nat, who falls in love with Titus Joyner, Archy’s long-lost son from a fling 15 years before Gwen.
And then there is Luther Stallings, Archy’s father, whose ties to Brokeland, and to darker secrets of the Stallings family, bring down more confusion and terror on the two families than Archy, or anyone else, can anticipate.
Each character has an inner life that is rich and poignant, connecting to the lives of other characters in a way that is both organic and formal, completely surprising and completely expected. And Brokeland Records, a “basement of forgotten music,” is just as much a character as it is the setting for the novel. The possible loss of Brokeland Records, and the death of esteemed patron Concise Jones, pushes each character to evaluate the way Brokeland Records both anchors and guides their lives. Without Brokeland, what will store their memories? Their daily senses of purpose? If Brokeland goes under, what obligations will each character face and decide to honor or ignore?
By the novel’s end, the reader will see a variety of losses and gains for these characters, some surprising, some necessary. But it takes the entire novel, and a desire to read beyond the thrill of plot, to both understand and identify with the development of these characters, whose crazy lives are more than foils to the redemption that awaits them.
What Chabon offers us, in prose that is both wild and elegant, is a novel that demands our full attention and reshapes our sense of what reading is for. If we can see Archy Stallings, or Julie Jaffe, as neighbors, then we are no longer reading to kill time between the tasks that drive our own daily purposes. If we can see them as neighbors, then we are reading to love, which, to our benefit, seems to be Chabon’s hope for us all along.
What Do You Think?
- Have you read Telegraph Avenue?
- Do you read as a neighbor or a consumer? What might be the difference?