Archive for the ‘Michael Chabon’ Category

Michael Chabon’s new book, Telegraph Avenue, is filled to the brim with rhapsodic exhilarating language that just rockets off the page, and which is his trademark. And which, I am sorry to say, absolutely baffles and repulses some people, for instance, a friend I was discussing it with at dinner last night. He finds it dense, inexplicable, a horrid briar patch impossible to get through. And he is an intelligent man, so it gave me pause to hear his opinion.

It is quite true that each page is tricksy and complex, and I have to keep going back to understand what I just read. But, there IS something there, and it is expressed with a wry and original vision which I find enchanting. It is very different from that endlessly labyrinthine writing in which one never knows where one is, disagreeable stuff like Cormac McCarthy’s, for instance. I found All the Pretty Little Horses almost unreadable–a real challenge to get through! It made me wonder why the author seemed so set on density and opacity–could it be that he was alarmed at the idea that some might dismiss his oeuvre as just another cowboy saga? Which horrid possibility he precluded by wreathing the story about with tortured poetry.

I have often quoted Joseph Bottum’s excellent appreciation of modern writing:

“It’s as though our authors have all been forced to absorb something as exquisite as, say Annie Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek”, a book of semi-mystical nature-observation that has been mandatory at writers’ workshops for years. And once a writer’s been anniedillardated, the prose gets finer and finer, and the point gets smaller and smaller. Mr. Updike hasn’t had to pay much penalty for his prose, and even Ms. Dillard occasionally says something interesting. But their children have all been ruined. They write like angels, of course; indeed, they are angels, so disembodied that an infinite number of them can dance on the head of a pin. Even while she’s denouncing capitalist America, Pulitzer prize winner Barbara Kingsolver sounds like an ethereal dove, gently expiring from consumption. Alice Munro, whose “The Love of a Good Woman” won this year’s National Book Critics Circle Award—has a prose so fine it can’t lift anything heavier than a small cup of tea. There’s a description of a china cupboard in her story “Cortes Island” so profoundly pointless it has to be seen to be believed.”

Chabon’s prose CAN lift something heavier than a small cup of tea. AND it’s entertaining! Here is a little scene between the two men who own Brokeland Records, and a baby Archie brought in:


“Babies are cool,” Nat said. “They can do Eskimo kisses.” Nat and Rolando went at it, nose to nose, the baby hanging there, putting up with it. “Yeah, Rolando’s all right.”

“That’s what I thought.”

“Got good head control”

“Doesn’t he, though?” Archy said.

“That’s why they call him Head-Control Harry. Right? Sure it is. Head-Control Harry. You want to eat him.”

“I guess. I don’t really eat babies all that much.”

“So, what, you practicing? That’s the idea?”

“That was the idea.”

“And how’s it working out?”

Archy shrugged, giving it that air of modest heroism, the way you might shrug after you had been asked how in God’s name you managed to save a hundred orphans trapped in a flaming cargo plane from collision with an asteroid. As he played it off to Nat, Archy knew—felt, like the baby shaped ache in his left arm—that neither his ability nor his willingness to care for Rolando English for an hour, a day, a week, had anything whatsoever to do with his willingness or ability to be a father to the forthcoming child now putting the finishing touches on its respiratory and endocrine systems in the dark laboratory of his wife’s womb.

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. “

A lot of the book is a consideration of fatherhood, in fact. Not to mention the notion of family, of race, of  mothers, aunts, and grandmothers, of life in America and American pop culture. But the power here is the force of language—this time, the slang and dialect of Oakland, as droll and apt as the Jewish slang that lit up the pages of the Yiddish Policeman’s Union. This book careens about, crazy with wild creative enthusiasm, Shakespearean joie de vivre—and yes, it is hard to read, with all the tumbling images and ideas rushing by—but, such fun!


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