Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Telegraph Avenue - Michael Chabon and Dhalgren - Samuel Delaney

I read a lot of non-fiction, and I feel that when I do read fiction, it had better be some pretty high-octane stuff.  "Telegraph Avenue" by Michael Chabon fills the bill.

I finished it this morning at six AM.  No, I wasn't up all night with it, but after going to bed early last night, I woke up at 3 AM and thought I'd read some more of it.

What can I say?  What a ride!  Finding myself a few nights back under a gritty Oakland sky, on a bus waiting for a light at the corner of Delaney and Chabon, watching two young boys, one black and one white exploring some interesting psycho-social territory.

This novel took me to Bellona more than a few times.  And it made me want to pull out my rather dog-eared copy of "Dhalgren" and read it for the eleventy-seventh time.

Five stars.  If you haven't already, go get it!

 Here's a review from that I thought was on point..

Bygammyrayeon January 28, 2013
If I could switch identities with a writer, I would like to be Michael Chabon. He has total command of the English language; creates colorful, yet believable, characters; displays a wonderful sense of the comic and the absurd in daily life; is compassionate about the faults and frailties of human beings; believes in the ability of people to mature and change for the better; and just seems to be having so much fun being a teller of tales. I can't put his books down and I always feel more cheerful when I have finished one.

This novel is the story of two families living and working in a region of California on the borderland between yuppie Berkeley and down-and-out Oakland. The men, one white and Jewish and one black, run a "church of the vinyl," a used record store specializing in jazz and early rhythm and blues and hip-hop, a business being threatened by the proposed opening of a mega-store which will have its own used vinyl department. Their two wives are partners as well--nurse midwives--and their livelihood is being threatened by a looming lawsuit about a birthing gone wrong. On top of all this, the black couple, who are expecting their first baby, are suddenly surprised by the appearance of the man's teenage son from a long-ago romance, and the white couple's teenage son has fallen completely in love with the boy.

The large cast of memorable supporting characters includes a wheeling-and-dealing city councilman and funeral home director, an elderly organ-playing musical legend, a former action-movie actor and his long-legged former costar and current girlfriend, the "fifth-richest black man in America," an incredibly old female Chinese martial arts teacher, an overweight lawyer who defends whales and calls himself Moby, and an extremely verbal and talented parrot.
Michael Chabon
All these are written about in prose that is dense, lush, and full of metaphors and $2 words. Another writer using so many words when just a few could tell the same story would surely come off as pretentious. But somehow Chabon does not. His writing is so joyful and exuberant, and he is so obviously and unashamedly showing off that it works as part of his charm. When he includes a 12-page chapter which is all one sentence, he seems like nothing so much as a young teen boy showing off, saying, "Hey, look at me. I can ride my bike with no hands." Few writers in my reading experience have had the power to carry me along just with the words, regardless of plot. Michael Chabon can.


Oh, and if you haven't read "Dhalgren", get on it.  You'll either love it or hate it. As one Amazon reviewer puts it:

By Amazon Customer on January 2, 2005

I read this book in three days, found none of the sex gratuitous, never felt lost (though the narrative certainly does fly apart in the last section), and thought the book, if it needed editing, only needed about 75 pages worth, and that's spread out across 800. I seem to be in the minority, and that makes sense--this is not a book for everyone.

But for me, Dhalgren is the best book I've read in months, and I desperately don't want its detractors to scare people like me off. No, fans of early Delany, this is not Babel-17, but I personally think he didn't start getting really good until Nova and his short stories. No, people of delicate sensibilities, this is not a sanitized book, but those who believe it's _just_ about the author's own bisexuality are probably betraying their own sensitivities; frankly, I found issues of race, the concept of identity, the artistic drive, philosophy, the power of myth, semiotics, metafiction, and the overwhelming theme of "What happens when time has no meaning?" to be far more prevalent than the issues of sexuality. There _is_ a lot of sex in certain sections of Dhalgren, but it usually serves as a signpost in a relationship, showing just how two or more people stand at that particular moment. Dhalgren is also not "about nothing," nor is it "disjointed"--there is very clearly a storyline going on, though its initial stated goals lose meaning as certain themes start to take over the universe of the book. It's no A-to-B plot, but it's one seriously good A-through-B-and-around-back-to-A (or IS it?) plot.

An old and treasured edition...
So what IS Dhalgren? To me, it's a book with all of the best thematic concerns of Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow combined with a few very awesome riffs on Joyce, universalized by the sheer mythic BIGNESS of this very, very weird place in which it all occurs. Fans of the Big Dense Postmodern Novel and SF's '60s New Wave might fall madly in love with this, as might anyone who likes both Haruki Murakami and Hunter Thompson. I know I did.

Plenty of people have tried to summarize this thing, but this is what you need to know: Dhalgren is an eerie, sexy, alternately thrilling and draining, mythic picaresque of a book in which one very confused guy enters the weirdest place on earth and ends up at the center of everything through no fault of his own. The desperate search for knowledge comes up with tantalizing clues and some emotionally walloping encounters and relationships with other people, but the Kid's mind is his own worst enemy, and the nearly self-aware city seems not too far behind. By the end, the Kid might not even care, but that doesn't free him from the troubles not knowing causes. Plenty of possible answers pop up, but this mystery's solution seems overdetermined: there are dozens of ways to explain what's going on, but each one has just as much tantalizing evidence as the others, and none fit the whole story perfectly. This is a book where you're going to want to flip back a lot to find out what the Kid is having frustrating bits of deja vu over, and like Finnegans Wake, you're also going to want to read the first couple of chapters over again as soon as you get to the broken sentence that ends and begins the book, because just like in Joyce's most frustrating creation, the end enriches the beginning INFINITELY.

Samuel Delaney
I'm already itching to reread this thing, because I have the feeling that the entire novel glows with interconnections the second time through. Till then, though, I beg anyone excited rather than scared off by this review to purchase this immediately. The risk of disliking Dhalgren greatly is far outweighed by the rewards the right kind of reader gets out of this book. This one's now a part of my mental constellation, and I hope it can play the same part in yours.

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