Is this the ultimate, definitive ‘litpop’ novel? Judging by the overwhelmingly positive responses from this week’s bookclubbers, perhaps so. Yes, it is big; yes, the second scene (set in a nostalgia trade-fair) was a curveball that made your head spin with lots of new names and characters; and yes, the novel made no concessions to anyone unfamiliar with the intricacies of life in contemporary Oakland, U.S.A. But we agreed this was a deliberately big big book, meaning big and complex enough in ambition, design, scope and heart to make those apparent drawbacks great strengths. Chabon’s plots, characterisation and images (a blimp floating free like a whale) nodded to Melville, Dickens, and Joyce. Just as Joyce reckoned you’d be able to reconstruct Dublin from the details in Ulysses, so the little fractured, hybrid part of the world rendered here was dense with reality effects. Yet the book’s and its characters’ main energies came not from other books, but music and film, of a broad and catholic nature, from sci-fi to blaxploitation, funk to easy listening. Music saturated many characters’ lives, and the narrative voice: Archy Stalling’s long-lost son, Titus is described as the ‘45’ to Archy’s ‘LP’. Such motifs, and the story spun with them, was enriched by the contrapuntal presence of strong female figures like the Berkeley Birth Partners, Aviva and Gwen. Chabon, we thought, was conscious of the ironies or pitfalls of a white guy writing about African-American cultures, using those cultures’ idioms: just as Julius Jaffe policed his own racism, so people in the book squirmed at the lawyer Moby’s attempts to speak like a hip black guy. And if the cussing about and discussing of seemingly mindless minutiae (what is a ‘Toronado’ car?) seemed cribbed from Tarantino, then it fitted that Julius and Titus should meet at a film class on that very director. The ending became more ambiguous as we considered it more closely. Was it the best thing for the community that Dogpile records didn’t open up? Was Nat Jaffe really engaging with ‘real-life’, as his wife Aviva wanted, by entering the world of virtual selling? Was Archy substituting one kind of ‘home’, in Brokeland records, for the failed dream of being an estate agent? Why was it the African-American characters seemed to have to adjust more to survive? It is nearly 20 years since Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, another novel about the love of music nurtured by men-children in a record store. Chabon has found a way to expand those materials to something really special. Who could fail to love a novel where the humour and dialogue were so eminently quotable, where a bird’s flight unites all the characters (as during the bravura 11-page, one-sentence centrepiece), or featuring a pre-presidential Obama, who is as cool and kind as you’d hope he really is?
LitPop is a book club for lovers of books, music and books about music. It meets at 6pm-7pm every third Wednesday of the month at Newcastle City Library and is convened by Rachel Carroll (Teesside University) and Adam Hansen (Northumbria University). Meetings are free to attend, and the library tries to get copies in. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information, or follow us on Twitter @Litpop1.
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