Michael Chabon mines pop culture
Profile: Michael Chabon
When it comes to great parrots of world literature, Michael Chabon knows his stuff.
“My all-time favourite parrot is the one in Love in the Time of Cholera,” says Chabon, on the phone from his office in Oakland, California. “And then there’s the stuffed parrot in ‘A Simple Heart’ by Gustave Flaubert.”
Another favourite is in “How Love Came to Professor Guildae” by Robert Hichens, an obscure writer from the early 1900s. In Hichens’s short story, says Chabon, “a parrot is left in a haunted room overnight, to try to record the manifestations of the spirit haunting the room.”
There’s a parrot in Chabon’s big new novel, Telegraph Avenue. But Fifty-Eight, as he’s called, is not assigned any such ghostly watches. The bird does have a star turn, though: in the book’s midsection, a 12-page-long sentence tracks Fifty-Eight’s flight to freedom while also looking in on the book’s main characters.
These include Archy and Nat, long-time friends who run a vintage-vinyl jazz-record store, and their wives, Gwen and Aviva, who run a midwifery business. In the two main story threads, Archy and Nat’s store, Brokeland Records, is threatened by plans for a nearby mall development, while Gwen and Aviva run afoul of a doctor at the local hospital.
“I was fascinated by the work,” Chabon says of his decision to make Aviva and Gwen midwives.
“From my first encounter it seemed like something that would be interesting to write about. And I wanted this book to have a kind of weight to it that might not be supplied sufficiently by the work of the two men who own a used record store and play in a band together.”
Midwifery brings a little more gravity to the book, Chabon says. “And it was a chance to look at women and write some women characters who were doing their own work that was unrelated to what was going on with the men in the book. I could deal with them in their own terms and really test my strength as a writer to do that.”
Compared with much of Chabon’s recent major work, Telegraph Avenue has its feet firmly planted on terra firma, specifically the streets of Berkeley, where the author lives with his wife, Ayelet Waldman, and their four children. Since 2000, Chabon—who published his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, in 1988—has delved into alternative history (the Pulitzer Prize–winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay), alternative worlds (the novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union), epic fantasy-adventure (the serial Gentlemen of the Road, screenplay revisions for the movie John Carter), and even superhero comics (The Escapist).
Not that there isn’t a little reimagining or remaking going on in Telegraph Avenue.
One of the book’s subplots involves Luther Stallings, Archy’s deadbeat dad. A former blaxploitation movie star fallen on hard times, Luther is looking for a comeback, a return to the glory days when he played a kung-fu fighter named Strutter in a series of low-budget ’70s films.
For background, Chabon needed to create a credible fictional history of blaxploitation cinema.
“I did a fair amount of viewing, which was often kind of hard going,” Chabon says. “A lot of those movies do not hold up very well, if they ever did. What has held up beautifully are the soundtracks. I listened to a lot of the classic soundtracks, and some of the lesser-known ones as well.”
He also researched the fates of the various stars of the period, like Pam Grier, Fred Williamson, and Richard Roundtree. “I didn’t model the character of Luther Stallings on any of those characters,” Chabon says. “I just wanted to make sure I knew what I was talking about.”
Chabon is well-known for incorporating genre conventions and pop-culture references in his work, and Telegraph Avenue is rife with the latter. At one point the author likens a character’s actions to those of Galactus, a godlike consumer of worlds from Fantastic Four comic books; at another point he compares a character’s mood to the mating-ritual-rage that affects Vulcans, pon farr.
“Pop culture is culture to me,” Chabon says. “I wouldn’t hesitate to make a reference to a relatively well-known aspect of Star Trek any more than I would hesitate to make a reference to Norse mythology or British literature or any of the other things that form a part of my overarching cultural context.”
It’s not a deliberate choice, says Chabon, it’s just what he has in his toolbox. “When I’m trying to explain or illustrate or create a metaphor, the material I have at hand is the material I’m going to use. A big portion of that includes aspects of pop culture that mean something to me.” With, he adds, “an emphasis on the phrase that mean something to me.”