Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Literary Smellscapes: Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

This is the opening paragraph of Michael Chabon’s 2012 novel Telegraph Avenue.
A white boy rode flatfoot on a skateboard, towed along, hand to shoulder, by a black boy pedaling a brakeless fixed-gear bike. Dark August morning, deep in the Flatlands. Hiss of tires. Granular unraveling of skateboard wheels against asphalt. Summertime Berkeley giving off her old-lady smell, nine different styles of jasmine and a squirt of he-cat.
An old friend from California recommended the book to me the other day; he thought I’d appreciate its depiction of local color. And indeed, I’m inclined to like novels that set the scene with an olfactory grace note. And yes, the nine styles of jasmine is Berkeley in a bottle.

But there’s also something about Chabon’s style—a slow, steady accretion of descriptive detail that doesn’t really build a mood or lead to action—that feels laborious. I struggled to get through the next ten pages. His layering-on of references to specific places, names, and brands reminds me of a painter who slathers thick layers of paint onto a canvas and moves it around with a trowel. I gave up somewhere around page fifteen.

De gustibus. You might love it.

P.S. In creating the Amazon link I found that Michiko Kakutani calls Chabon a “magical prose stylist.” Well, that seals it. Michiko Kakutani is my personal counter-indicator; her assessments, back when I bothered to read them, were in perfect negative correlation to my own.

No comments: