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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