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Michael Chabon: '€˜Telegraph Avenue'€™ and the future

  • Chris O’Connor

    The Jakarta Post

Bali   /   Mon, November 16, 2015   /  04:08 pm
Michael Chabon: '€˜Telegraph Avenue'€™ and the future

Chris O'€™Connor

Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon is taking a brief hiatus from writing, but that has not prevented him from traversing the globe.

From his home in Berkley, California, author Michael Chabon recently took part in Indonesia'€™s Ubud Writers and Readers Festival (UWRF) in Ubud, Bali.

'€œIt'€™s my first visit to UWRF and my first time in Bali. I love it!'€ he said.

Best known for his Pulitzer Prize winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, his latest novel, Telegraph Avenue, was the title of his discussion at the Ubud festival.

Co-hosted and recorded for broadcast by Australian Broadcasting Corporation'€™s Kate Evans, Chabon and Evans took the audience on a journey through the vast galaxy of pop-culture references that inspire Chabon'€™s writing and explored the content and humor of his current book.

Published in 2012, the novel is set in 2004 and revolves around the used vinyl record store Brokeland Records and the battles over just about everything by its owners, Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe. Archy is black, Nat is white and Jewish and they find their business threatened by ex-NFL superstar Gibson Goode'€™s planned construction of his second Dogpile Thang megastore around the corner.

'€œBrokelands is the kind of place where people gather, people with a shared interest in music, no matter who they are or where they come from. They are the regulars, the characters that make a place special. Even people like Moby, I'€™ve seen people him, and the others too, in record stores.'€

Chabon'€™s writing style, and his conversation for that matter, is rich and complex; for example, describing Brokelands'€™s unscrupulous landlord, Garnet Singletary: '€œSingletary was an information whale, plying his migratory route through the neighborhood, taking in all the gossip, straining it for nutrients through his tireless baleen'€.

His writing almost has a beat, his narrative is near poetic and, with abundant use of metaphor, it sometimes seems to just sing to the reader. '€œThe pace and rhythm, is that a reflection of your love of music?'€ asks Evans.

'€œNot really, it'€™s more about the cadence of the sentence '€” the cadence even before sense and substance. I know what I want to say, but saying it how it needs to be said, well that'€™s important.'€

Readers don'€™t need to be well-versed in the American sub-cultures Chabon relies upon for context and placement; the story explores them with sufficient depth, penned with his unique style. With the characters, and indeed some of the subplots, he acknowledges that he enters what might be seen as risky territory '€” a '€œwhite man, talking black'€.

He approaches the issue with typical Chabon inventiveness through his characters. One of the main players, Nat, is white and Jewish, but was raised by a black mother and refuses to '€œact or talk black'€.

In fact, as Chabon describes another larger-than-life character, Moby, a white American lawyer who hangs out at the store '€œtalking dis n dat'€, Nat'€™s toxicity toward him becomes a central theme.

'€œNat'€™s so adamant in his refusal to act black. With the whole dynamic between him and Moby, I'€™m just trying to show my own anxiety and trepidation about doing what I'€™m doing, while at the same time feeling confident in my right and ability to do it.'€

In the book, Chabon also presents Luther Stallings, Archy'€™s father, who had been an actor in the Blaxploitation films in the 70s and, in another incident, Gwen, Achy'€™s black wife, gets racially insulted in a hospital kicking off a subplot of theatrical size.

Telegraph Avenue is set in an old beat-up Oakland record store full of obsessive record collectors, who together are worshippers at, as the character Archy Stallings calls it, '€œthe church of vinyl'€. For people who love a great read, this book comes highly recommended.

One of Chabon'€™s earlier books, Wonder Boys, was made into a Hollywood movie of the same name starring Michael Douglas and Robert Downey Jr.

He has also worked on the scripts of The Boys of Abu Ghraib and Spiderman 2. Telegraph Avenue may well yet be made into a TV series, a subject that brought up the treatment of books by film directors.

'€œTough one, but no-one is forcing authors to sell their books, and I know sometimes moviemakers offer surreal amounts of money, but the choice is still the author'€™s. I think some authors get annoyed, but at the end of the day, I see the book as the book and the movie as the movie; they are two separate pieces of work and, let'€™s not forget, the authors have been paid for the privilege.'€

Music is more than just a passion with Chabon; it has winkled into every aspect of his private and working life, and listening to him talk about his love of vinyl records is extraordinary.

'€œMusic, real music matters. On vinyl it feels real, real people playing real instruments, producing real music.'€

Aside from Telegraph Avenue, much of his most recent work has also been musically inclined. That includes a swathe of lyrics for Mark Ronson'€™s chart-topping 2015 Album UpTown Special.

'€œI wrote the lyrics to nine of the 11 songs on the track list, but not the single '€˜Uptown Funk'€™. I sent them to Mark and he loved them, and yes, there are definitely more to come!'€

On the back of that success, he has recently signed with Universal Music Publishing Group as an in-house pop lyricist. With that, alongside Bill Tarrant'€™s confirmation that Bob the Musical, directed by Michael Hazanavicius and starring Tom Cruise, could be nearing production, it seems Chabon'€™s writing hiatus will be short lived.

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