Show Hide image

Michael Chabon's meticulous macro-planning brings micro pleasures

Telegraph Avenue - review.

Telegraph Avenue
Michael Chabon
Fourth Estate, 480pp, £18.99

In her essay “That Crafty Feeling”, Zadie Smith describes “two breeds of novelist: the macroplanner and the micromanager”. Micromanagers “build a house floor by floor, discretely and in its entirety”. In novelistic terms, this means starting on the first page and progressing, by increments, to the last. A macro-planner, by contrast, “makes notes, organises material, configures a plot and creates a structure – all before he writes the title page”. This “structural security” allows the macro-planner to perform “radical surgery” on a novel, changing the setting, the title or the ending multiple times, even late in the writing process.

If Smith is a self-confessed micromanager, then Michael Chabon must be a macro-planner. Publication of his last big novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007), was pushed back to allow him time to rewrite the book from a different point of view. His plots are clearly macro-planned, in that he takes a standard template and cleverly complicates it. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a noir-style whodunit with an intricate difference: Detective Landsman must solve the crime before Sitka, Alaska (a temporary Jewish homeland in the novel’s alternate reality), reverts to the US.

Now, Telegraph Avenue takes another well worn storyline – that of the little man v big business – and twists it. The enormous Dogpile media store threatening the tiny, high-minded Brokeland Records is harder to hate than your average Evil Corp: Dogpile, by employing an all-black staff, aims “to restore, at a stroke, the commercial heart of a black neighbourhood”. In a novel that is largely about race, Chabon is careful never to simplify this sensitive subject or to milk it for easy gravitas. He is interested in  how seldom the two worlds – black and white – really mix, even in modern America, even when “there [is] no tragic misunderstanding, rooted in centuries of slavery and injustice”.

The protagonists are a white couple, Nat and Aviva, and a black couple, Archy and Gwen. The husbands work together at Brokeland Records; their wives form a home-birthing team called Berkeley Birth Partners. Nat is a white man on the fringes of a black world, acutely conscious of and embarrassed by his or any other white guy’s attempts to act black. Symmetrically, Gwen is losing faith in her career, feeling like the only black woman in a white sea of bourgeois Berkeley mothers. Meanwhile Nat’s and Aviva’s 14-year-old son, Julius, is sleeping with Archy’s illegitimate son, Titus. Race, fatherhood, commercialisation, underage homosexual sex: Telegraph Avenue could easily be described as an “issues” novel but it doesn’t feel like one, because Chabon’s treatment of this material is always intelligently nuanced.

Despite these carefully laid foundations, Telegraph Avenue is not an efficient book. The plot is arguably too elaborate and the reader struggles to keep track of the outsize cast of characters. “One thing I notice reading fiction by black writers is that they almost never tell you who’s black or white,” Chabon told the Telegraphrecently. “They do it through diction and characterisation.” A commendable aspiration, perhaps, but Chabon has so much to pack into his 480 pages that often there isn’t time for detailed characterisation. Whole chapters can go by before a character’s skin colour becomes clear and you can’t help but feel that it would have been better simply to state the fact at the outset. The novel’s several flashbacks are also clumsily handled and the ending feels both rushed and too neat.

None of this is really a problem, however, because the book’s main selling point is not all the meticulous macro-planning but the more micro pleasures of Chabon’s voice. After The Yiddish Policemen’s Union’s sparer prose style, Chabon fans will relish this return to the melodious prolixity of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000). Chabon’s capacity for invention appears unlimited and it’s impossible not to be impressed by the ease with which he finds correlatives for obscure emotional states. He manages to be humorous and accurate all at once – for example, a character “yanking out the last couple of Jenga blocks from the tottering pile of his cool”. And this is Archy, realising that the strange boy standing in front of him is his son: “He stared at Titus Joyner, unblinking, breathing through his mouth. A kind of exploratory alarm, Nat would have said, as if he’d just realised he had left his wallet in a taxicab in a city far away and was trying to remember how much money it contained.”

Not all of Chabon’s images work but their sheer density ensures a very high hit rate. Opening the novel at random, I see a parrot “browsing politely through the silvery down at its breast”, “a ghostly chevron of pattern baldness”, the “granular unravelling of skateboard wheels against asphalt”, Gwen’s hair “worn in a fetching artful anemone of baby dreadlocks”, another woman’s hair “black and glossy as a well-seasoned skillet” – I could go on and on.

Telegraph Avenue is stuffed full of these observations. There is not a moment’s laziness; Chabon’s attention never lets up. The novel contains at least four green cars, all of them slightly different: a “lettuce-pale” Prius, a “fatigues- green” Subaru, a Volvo that “approximates the colour of a squirt of fluoride Crest”, a “crocodile-green” Toronado with “a chrome grin”. The overwhelming impression is that of a writer working tirelessly to delight the reader and, by and large, succeeding.

Claire Lowdon is assistant editor of Areté.

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Lib Dem special

Almeida Theatre
Show Hide image

Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.