Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon
(4th Estate $34.99)
I'm calling it: Michael Chabon has jumped the shark. Or fallen off it, anyway. He was balanced precariously on its back when he wrote The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, his magnificent, overblown, self-sabotaging Opus Maximum about holocaust survival and the New York underground comics scene in the 1940s and 50s.
He won the fiction Pulitzer for that book, and in the 12 years since he has been content to fish the shallows, trading on his pop culture/high culture crossover credentials to write screenplays (Spiderman 2, John Carter), young adult fantasy (Summerland), alternate history (The Yiddish Policeman's Union) and a range of other keeping-busy projects.
Now, if you'll forgive the switch of metaphors, he's back on the high wire, and he really wants you to know it. Telegraph Avenue is as ambitious as Kavalier & Clay in scope and subject matter, and rather more ambitious stylistically. I have issues with the story Chabon wants to tell - an Obama-era zeitgeist tale of black-white racial tension and cultural change, rooted in black music and blaxploitation film, and recapitulating the ideas and emotional dynamics of Kavalier & Clay in ways both predictable and irritating. (Well, irritating mostly because it's predictable.)
The comics subculture depicted in the older book felt both integral to the book's minority underdog story, and a product of genuine enthusiasm. Here, the pop cultural underpinnings feel googled, and are allowed to swamp the story to a degree strongly suggestive of over-compensation: "Of course I know this landscape, look how many names I can drop!"
But it's stylistically that Chabon really lets himself down. Kavalier & Clay sits right at the outer boundary of the possible in terms of authorial presence in a character-based story. The narrator's voice is constantly foregrounding itself, via attention-getting vocabulary, outlandish imagery, and baroque sentence structure. It's playful, and it's fun, but the game it's playing is "attend to my mastery!", and the cost is that the characters never acquire their own voices.
Telegraph Avenue takes this approach to the next level, deploying a massively ornate authorial voice whose stylistic stuntsmanship first distracted, then irritated, and finally enraged me. Chabon is ostensibly telling a story about characters whose choices reflect and illustrate America's shifting racial tensions over the course of three decades. But in fact their choices reflect nothing: no discernible psychology drives them, and therefore Chabon is free to move them about like sock puppets. Some books you have to wade through. This one almost drowned me.
David Larsen is an Auckland reviewer.