Michael Chabon’s Sense of Place – Telegraph Avenue

Cover: Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

Cover: Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

Telegraph Avenue, Michael Chabon’s latest novel, conjures the social and physical landscape of the East Bay. Oakland and Berkeley, on the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay, are joined and separated by Telegraph Avenue. Chabon has explained in interviews that the street serves as “a seam, joint, or ragged fringe” between the cultures of the two cities, a sort of no-man’s land, which is why he names it Brokeland.

In addition to great characters in a story with enormous narrative drive, Chabon is a master at evoking place. He paints word pictures that evoke strong images of places that the reader probably never has visited. And he populates his stories with strong characters, more than archetypes, unique individuals, often near the end of their tethers, that seem like people the reader already knows.

Here’s an example of a place description (a word of advice: read the quotes before scrolling down to see the images I’ve used with them):

“The house on Stonewall Road was one of those California houses put up in the late sixties with a Jet Propulsion Laboratory arrogance toward gravity, a set of angles on skinny poles engineered out into the green void. From the street, all you could see of it was its mailbox and carport, with the house concealed downslope as if it planned to spring an ambush on a passerby.”

And here’s a sample photo from Google Maps of such a house on Stonewall Road (click on the images to see them full size):

Stonewall Rd, Oakland, CA, courtesy Google Maps

Stonewall Rd, Oakland, CA, courtesy Google Maps

Again, Chabon describes the vista of the bay looking west from the Oakland hills:

“For a second or two, his eyes were diverted by the great canvas of city, bay, and bridges stretched across the frame of eucalyptus trees beyond the terra-cotta roof tiles of the venue. Paint laid on with brushes fat and fine, washes of fog and winking sun on window grids, the foundered wreck of Alcatraz, the iron giant jubilating up there on Twin Peaks.”

Could easily be this view:

6%, courtesy Flickr user D.H. Parks

6%, courtesy Flickr user D.H. Parks

And this last description of hiking in Yosemite:

“Climbing to the top of the Mist Trail up a preposterous stairway of stones proposed, cut, hauled, and fixed immovably into place, proof against time and earthquakes, under the auspices of the WPA. She remembered feeling grateful to those long-dead men, the planners and the workers, for their foresight, their labor, the heroic absurdity of that granite stair.”

Probably describes these stairs:

Vernal Falls, Mist Trail, courtesy Flickr user James CW Chang

Vernal Falls, Mist Trail, courtesy Flickr user James CW Chang

I’m not praising Chabon for writing scenes that match these photographs of buildings and landscapes; I’m praising him for precise, evocative descriptions that nevertheless leave room in the reader’s imagination to see characters acting out their stories in these places. A must read, two enthusiastic thumbs up!

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