Friday, September 28, 2012
Up in the Air, Part 2
Like NW, Michael Chabon's (pronounced Shaw-Boom!) Telegraph Avenue is named after a place; the avenue that splits Berkeley and Oakland down the middle like a piece of racially divided pie. Like NW, its narrative revolves (pun intended and, I'll bet, subconsciously ripped off) around best friends and co-owners of Brokeland Records, Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe. Like NW, it's big and hard to carry with a coffee, without spilling. Unlike NW, however, Michael Chabon's prose, packed as it may be with incoherent references to pop-culture and jazz, doesn't bring to mind a place so much as a time: 2004 to be exact, but here and now to be less pushy about it; albeit, a here and now hung up, like a warm sweater, on the past. Except when it comes to race, which both confounds and helps to clarify our sense, as readers, of "what's going on."
Chabon (rhymes more or less with "What's going on?"), whose peers in elementary school included blacks and whites, read Ebony magazine, watched Blaxploitation films, and listened to the kind of music I won't humiliate myself by mixing up with showtunes publicly for no other reason than the culture was of interest and available to him. He didn't then set out to write a novel to the beat of race relations in America, but to honor and make sense of his perspective on black culture: that of a white Jew. In a recent interview, Chabon (say it with me, "Chum-ba-wam-ba") said the only time he felt unqualified or tentative to speak for his black characters was when he wasn't writing. In part because when he was he could take his mind off the normative assumptions about characters like Archy he might otherwise have pressed upon himself.
Taking a backseat as a writer can be dangerous apparently (and yes, I know, sort of at odds with what great writers probably think of as their job), given that one's culture's reading and recommendation of what's accurate or sensitive in regard to race and other placeholders of identity can be so stiflingly cautious as to mostly stay in park with expectations. I wish I had a quote at hand by Wallace Stevens, who I'm sure said something coarse and ostentatious to substantiate my otherwise made up and case and point-like claim that the imagination is at least as added to by the shared social reality of things as our unique and wrong perceptions of them. But alas. Should we make up as we go? Probably not. But should we write just what we know? All I'll say is that if I did that, this blog would be almost exclusively dedicated to peanut butter.