Chabon Too Far Out Front

My LP record collection—over 1,500 disks, alphabetized and housed in custom designed shelves—is peppered with selections from CTI Records (Creed Taylor Incorporated). One can easily identify the CTI titles: glossy, primary colored spines, each offering a hint of the bold, often provocative, cover photographs of Pete Turner; however, I would bet that the majority of readers of Michael Chabon’s overly lengthy, Telegraph Avenue, while familiar with some of CTI’s music (Deodato, Grover Washington Jr., George Benson—before he started to sing, that is), will be lost to ascribe anywhere near the obsessive cultural significance that these records are handed in the worn-out, defensive world of the Chabon’s used record store—“Brokeland Records”—in Oakland, California.
In the Seventies, CTI represented the pinnacle of hip jazz, fusion and musicianship, and the LPs themselves were engineered and manufactured to deliver a sound quality unrivaled by any other music company. You knew a CTI release would be special and although the company didn’t survive, their music remains more vital than ever. So I felt particularly enlightened as Chabon referenced, with reverential praise, so many of the titles displayed within his fictional store. But my insight and reminiscences notwithstanding, Telegraph Avenue is a novel where the records (or their memory, at least) and prose quickly overpower the characters. Simply put, Chabon, brilliant as always, seems in need of keeping himself out front.
Now, I did enjoy the book (certainly more than The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, which I found a clever exercise that became tiresome after the first few dozen pages of alternate history), but for all Chabon’s obvious brilliance it feels as if he’s become fully unable to even consider editing out some of the flourishes. At 465 pages in length it is not an overly long effort, but I finished the novel wishing it had been edited down a healthy hundred pages or so. And he could’ve started with the now famous (infamous?) “Part III,” titled “A Bird of Wide Experience.” This twelve-page chapter/part, which uses the pet talking parrot of Cochise Jones—whose life (fictional CTI organ legend) and death help frame the book’s plot—as the inspiration for an omnificent overview composed as a single sentence. Okay, our brains don’t read it as such, and we use the commas and semi-colons as breaks, but other than as a display of linguistic dexterity I felt these pages added little to the story. I’m reminded of the film director, Peter Jackson, who, after the success of his first Lord of the Rings film, has found it near impossible to cut or edit any scene—particularly action—resulting in bloated films that would be far better paced and energetic if shorter.
Chabon—or his editor—will simply not “kill a darling,” and that’s a shame, particularly since his characters, the Stallings and Jaffes and the extended Oakland players around them (along with one Magic Johnsonesque power player), offer quite the variety of interest. I wanted to know them better, and yet, Chabon’s prose always seemed to push them farther away. The use of street language was a case in point: throughout the novel Chabon uses a voice awash in a combination of urban grit and jazz hipness that reads as strained on both counts. In her current book, Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch – Let Verbs Power Your Writing, Constance Hale uses a few pages in her chapter on tenses to discuss “nonstandard” English, particularly Black English, but she does caution a less-is-more discipline when attempting its use. I think Chabon felt compelled to demonstrate mastery. Of course, his characters avoid the “N” word, or “Motherfu—er” that I suspect would be a major factor in the actual language he attempts to deliver. So for me, the voice itself got in the way of story.
Still, Telegraph Avenue did force me down to my record collection to pull out a few of those old CTI records and reminisce about all the wonderful music therein—to say nothing about the many concerts I attended featuring those artists. And I bet those records still sound great. A fact that presents an irony left un-highlighted by Chabon’s book: Vinyl is back! CDs were neat, and itunes is easy, but ain’t nothing be sounding better than vinyl…

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