US author covers sensitive issues of racial tension in his new novel
At the age of 25, California-based author Michael Chabon broke onto the literary scene with his critically acclaimed first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. Years later, Chabon won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Now, he explores a sensitive topic in his new novel, Telegraph Avenue. The title comes from a street in his home town of Oakland, California; the novel itself is an Empire Records-style tale about two friends who find their small vinyl store under threat when a business mogul – who happens to be the fifth-richest black man in America – plans to build a bigger, better venture on their street. Chabon’s ability to interwine complicated characters with the US’s long history of racial tension earns it a place on your ‘to-read’ list.
You’re identified now as someone who brings a lot of pulp elements to literary fiction. Do you think this book gets away from that a bit? I guess I don’t really see it that way. It does incorporate lots of elements of crime fiction, martial-arts fiction. I feel as though I’ve sort of absorbed a lot of information as a writer about how to handle various kinds of genre material and to become comfortable with it and acknowledge its importance to my life, as a reader especially. Now having done all of that for a long time, I continue to feel free to allow those influences to shape the work without trying to write a piece of genre fiction itself.
Telegraph Avenue is reminiscent of your novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, in the sense that it’s so rooted in history. It really begins with place for me. When I walk through a place and I’m firing on all cylinders, even my neighbourhood [in Oakland] where I’ve lived for 15 years, I do feel as though I’m walking through time at the same time I’m walking through space… Being aware that [the corner of 51st Street and Telegraph Avenue] represents the site of the original Ohlone Indian reservation in the area. Those things are always in my mind, the way history has survived and been defaced.
And is that why race plays such a large role in this book? That’s very much part of the history of Oakland. Over the years of living there, I’ve built up this sense of charged racial history of the area. By no means limited to the Black Panthers – going all the way back to Ku Klux Klan rallies in the streets of Oakland, a whole lot of hooded old white dudes, feeling bold and free to march down the streets. So the tension’s not buried too deeply, and if you’re paying attention you become aware of it. From Dhs60 at www.amazon.com.