For a novel as shot through with jazz and records and movie soundtracks as Michael Chabon's Telegraph Avenue (Harper, $27.99), it's surprising how few of the words in the book are spent describing the music the characters are hearing and making and ignoring. Here's someone playing the song that is unquestionably the book's anthem:
He fiddled with the drawbars and switches of the Hammond, more for the sake of ritual than precision. With a count and a duck of his head on four, he began to play. She recognized the song as the old Carole King number "It's Too Late." The organ had a reedy, bluesy sound, smoke in its throat. Nat did not fool around with angles and flatted notes. His feet stoked the pedals.
Looking through this passage, it's hard to notice at first, but only five of those 72 words—reedy, bluesy, smoke, angles, flatted—actually describe the music. The rest deal with the whys and the wherefores of the music, the cause and effect. There are passages like this all through the book; each song is like an iceberg, something huge disguised as something almost demure, floating along in the ocean of the story. Most of the influence of the music—sometimes awe-inspiring, sometimes catastrophic—has to do with the part that Chabon doesn't describe, or describes indirectly.
It's a smart move. Chabon has been writing novels for a long time now, and so he understands the weaknesses and strengths of novels, and what makes novels different from other forms of artistic expression—like, say, music. You can't simply describe music with something as literal and as formulaic as words. Words won't do it, but those words put together in the rhythm and cadence of language can suggest music exponentially better than any single word can. You can mimic the flow and the energy of music in language, and Chabon's language in Telegraph Avenue is as alive as it has ever been.
Telegraph Avenue is mostly a bunch of people talking. Two men run Brokeland Records, a store in the strange hinterlands between Oakland and Berkeley that is in danger of being run out of business by a new cultural superstore—an African American–centric chain called Dogpile Thang—moving in down the street. Their wives work as midwives together, and a difficult birth puts the women in conflict with local medical professionals who dismiss their work as "voodoo." Someone's illegitimate son shows up. As far as Chabon's writing goes, this is pretty low-key subject matter—some of his more recent novels include a fictionalized account of the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby relationship that eventually gave birth to Marvel Comics with a detour into a war story along the way, and an alternate-universe noir set in a world where Israel was located not in the Middle East, but rather in the frozen wastes of Alaska.
There's nothing wrong with people talking. The majority of Shakespeare is made up of people talking, to pick an obvious example. And Shakespeare lives inside this book, along with old comic books, and blaxploitation films, and long-dead R&B singers, and trash TV shows like Walker, Texas Ranger. One thread of many centers on a community-center class called "Sampling as Revenge: Source and Allusion in Kill Bill," and Chabon is doing a Tarantino riff by incorporating any and every bit of source material that crosses his attentions into a patchwork that's not so much a series of homages as an expertly rendered DJ set.
Part of the extended riff is a pointless but very cool conversation about whether the name of a certain brand of Oldsmobile, the Toronado, has a definition. But Chabon's influences stretch across great chasms of pop culture and literature; monologues from Hamlet pop up here and there, one character reads and rereads a copy of Ulysses over and over until it's "swaybacked, edges sueded, pages yellow as the filter of a smoked cigarette," and Chabon flips one of the great American novels on its head when a lawyer introduces himself with the sentence "Call me Moby."
And the landscape of Telegraph Avenue is a dynamic cultural experiment where a black man and a Jew can open a record store together, where expressly racial cues get remixed, sampled, and reconfigured into something resembling a euphonious common tongue. Other cultural exchanges occur throughout the book: Chabon writes the best female characters of his career—women of strength and weakness who exist independently from the men in their own rich lives.
You throw all of this together, and you get one of the biggest (and biggest-hearted) books of the year: a hyperambitious novel that, even though it's set in 2004, is a loving testament to life in Barack Obama's America. If you need any proof that this is a book that found its heart on the night that Obama won the presidency in 2008, Chabon sticks Senator Obama in the middle of the book, lingering on the sidelines of a fundraiser, speaking in a language of blackness that we never hear him use anymore. (He calls one woman "a gorgeous sister," among other, more subtle, phrasings.)
This face we all know, with many of the wrinkles and cares stripped away by the ignorance of the past, doesn't have much screen time in the book, but Obama ("Obama of Illinois," he's introduced to the reader, a name as strange in its own way as Conan of Hyperborea) is like a prism, a fixed object that gathers up the characters in the text and refracts them into something different. They started as a disparate array of voices. They end up as a chorus.