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February Reader's Den: "Telegraph Avenue" Week 2 - About the Author
If you'd like to know all about Michael Chabon's prolific publishing history, Contemporary Authors Online has an exhaustive biography of him in our online databases. As I already noted, comics have been a big influence on his work and I surprized to learn that he worked on the screenplay of Edgar Rice Burrough's A Princess of Mars (novelized by Stuart Moore as John Carter: The Movie Novelization).
One small quirk of his personality that I think has been insufficently explored is his preoccupation with parrots. This article gives us some insight into this through quotations of other authors who have influenced Chabon.
As Jennifer Egan (A Visit From the Goon Squad) notes, the novel includes a "a 12-page-long sentence that includes the observations of an escaped parrot." This parrot is known as Fifty-Eight and belongs to Cochise Jones, the sentence in question is the chapter "A Bird of Wide Experience," a lynchpin of the novel. Perhaps Chabon has a preoccupation with parrots, too, since his book The Final Solution also features one, and the cover for Telegraph Avenue is inscribed "© 1973 Learned Parrot Records. All Rights Reserved." This is offset, however, by the writer's energy: "joyful" and "exuberant" are some of the adjectives I've seen thrown around, as well as Jennifer Egan's "Tarantinoesque," which I found difficult to fathom at first and then felt was justified with the many references to Kill Bill and other aspects of his work.
While choosing a Pulitzer Prize winning author for the Reader's Den may seem like a no-brainer, Telegraph Avenue does seem like a first in a lot of ways and possibly a stretch for Chabon, partly due to the writing style, partly to, as Slate notes, "Can a White Author Write Black Characters?" It would seem that the answer is "yes," as Telegraph Avenue has garnered a lot of comparisons to writers like Zadie Smith, or to mystery writers like Richard Price or George Pelecanos, who are able to credibly write characters from a wide variety of racial backgrounds. Other criticisms include that the novel feels more like it was set in the 1960s or 1990s than 2004, when it's supposed to take place. Also, a scene later in the book where Gwen chats with Barack Obama at the Democratic Convention struck many as awkward. Chabon addresses some of these concerns in a Slate article, but for me, one of the takeaways was that he really wanted to write believable female characters in this novel, and I think his portrayal of Gwen and Aviva as midwives is done well.