Part one of Telegraph Avenue is called "Dream of Cream," a subtitle that probably would cause you to wonder and is duly explained. All I have to say about that is OM NOM NOM. Also, this first part was initially rather confusing and frustrating, but once I became oriented it became a much easier read.
"Dream of Cream" takes place in 2004, while straying into the 1970's every so often. A whole lot of characters are introduced, notably old friends Archy and Nat, who own a record store together; midwifery partners Gwen and Aviva, who are married to Archy and Nat; Luther, Archy's deadbeat, absentee dad; Julius, son of Nat and Aviva, who is portrayed as an old man in a teenage body (though to me,he just seems like a kid marching to his own beat...literally); and Julius's mysterious new friend, Titus, who just arrived from Texas. Several more characters are introduced, though this is the core cast of characters. Most of the story takes place in Oakland, CA, occasionally spilling into Berkeley. Seemingly at the center of this story is Brokeland Records, the store that Archy and Nat own. Brokeland is threatened by the imminent arrival of a new Dogpile Thang, a media megastore who will likely undercut Brokeland and put them out of business. Mirroring that is the struggle facing Gwen and Aviva as they fight for respect at the local hospital.
What's really interesting about these two story lines is how Chabon weaves issues of race into them. For example, wouldn't most people say that the small, local, indie record store is preferable (though maybe not price-wise)? But it is suggested that Dogpile Thang is actually better for the black community of Oakland because it is 100% black-owned, unlike Brokeland. It's an interesting dichotomy. Likewise, in their struggles at the hospital, Gwen acknowledges how she feels her behavior towards the establishment must be different from Aviva's because of their difference in race. Beyond the actual differences in how the two women approach the hospital staff, it's really interesting and revealing to see how Gwen thinks about it:
Her relations toward authority, toward its wielders and tools, were - had to be - more complicated than her partner's. She could not as blithely subordinate her pride and self-respect... To the extent that Gwen had been hassled in her life by representatives of the white establishment, she had been trained to get the better of the situation without compromising herself... (pg. 59)One thing that is a little bit frustrating in the novel is how vague Chabon is about the race of the characters. If we were to actually see these people, we'd most likely recognize their race immediately. However, the vagueness interferes with that implicit understanding of the racial politics at play. Though, even while being frustrated by this, I think I see Chabon's intention too. By not explicitly saying "Archy, a black man..." he prevents the reader from making race-based assumptions until he's said a little more about who the character is. I'd imagine that this could force people to confront their own beliefs and values, which is a tremendous thing for a writer to do.
And race isn't the only controversial topic that Chabon takes on. Julius and Titus, the teen friends, while not necessarily identifying as gay, experiment with a gay relationship. Despite the sexual relationship, however, there still exists the tension of cultural expectations, which Julius in particular seems to struggle with emotionally during a time of distress for Titus:
Julie thought about squeezing in next to Titus, between him and the wall of the stairwell. Put his arm around the boy, lay his head against his shoulder, hold his hand. If he were Titus's girlfriend, it would be the easiest thing in the world."I wish I were you girlfriend," he said. (pg. 106)I'm interested to see what Chabon does with the unusual relationship the boys have, though I think his handling of race in the book thus far indicates that he will handle it carefully and thoughtfully.
Overall, this has been a great start to the book. Chabon's narration is great - a little mocking, a little ironic, with great observations that get their humor from how he states the obvious. In the beginning, I had some issues following the story, but that smoothed itself out quickly, once I became accustomed to the jumping around and occasional time switches. The only complaint I have (and it's not so much a complaint as a criticism) is that the various story lines tie together a bit too neatly. That is, of course, the way of many novels and it serves its purpose here as well. By intersecting the story lines so much, we get to see the characters from many different angles, which allows us to understand both the viewed and the viewers more deeply. I can nit-pick all I want but the truth is, it's a great novel so far and Chabon seems to be a master. I can't wait to continue.