The world of American fiction is a sad thing these days. On the one hand, you have the genre boys and girls, often writing with surprising skill, but receiving little in the way of serious attention from the serious lit crowd. On the other, you have those who toil in the vineyards of academe, writing stuff the average person will never even know exists, let alone care about, as they slog towards teunure. And then there are the very few writers who are managing the difficult balancing act, whereby they write challenging yet accessible books dealing with important issues, and do it in a way that entertains and edifies. That's why I was happy to learn that Michael Chabon had a new one on the way, and, from its title, Telegraph Avenue, it sounded like it dealt with something I, a former resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, knew something about. Then it turned out to be partially set in a record store, so I was not only sold, but eager to read it.
Before I had the chance to buy the book, though, I noticed that the Apple book store was offering it in an "enhanced" edition. Okay, I thought, that sounds like it could be interesting, so I went ahead and grabbed it.
And it was a very odd experience.
Oh, not the book itself. The story is wonderful: two guys, one white, one black, running a used record store, Brokeland Records, on the Oakland side of Telegraph Avenue, a long, straight street that stretches from downtown Oakland to the University of California campus in Berkeley, and their wives, who run a midwifery practice, are the centers around which the story turns. They're under attack from both sides: a football player-turned-rap-mogul is going to build a huge black-themed mall including a record store to beat all record stores for youngsters to find beats to rap to, while a problematic delivery gets the women into a conflict with the young doctor who has to intervene, as well as the parents. And think about it: who does midwifery these days, let alone sell used records? Well, at least people are still having babies, and Berkeley/Oakland is an ideal place to sell alternative birthing services. Brokeland depends on a small core of obsessed music fans to pay their rent -- and that rent's about to go up. But that's only one generation: Nat and Aviva, the white couple, have a son, Julius, who's in his early teens and he's sneaked home his best friend -- or maybe a little more than that -- Titus, a black kid who's a bit of a mystery. As for Archy and Gwen, the black couple, they've got a kid on the way, which isn't making things any easier. Oh, and there's an older generation, too: a legendary jazz organist who hangs out at Brokeland with his constant companion, a parrot, on his shoulder and, eventually, there's a broke-down blaxploitation star and his co-star/girlfriend, plotting a comeback, once he finds the financing.
What just about every one of these characters has in common is that, to grossly oversimplify, each of them doesn't see why the seemingly impossible shouldn't be possible. Women have trained to help other women give birth for ages: why should the medical establishment suddenly decide that's a bad thing? Mom-and-pop record stores have been around for far less time, but they've played an integral role, especially in African-American neighborhoods, in bringing music makers and music consumers together, and now that records are no longer made, they recycle the old records for a new audience. As for the teenagers, they're infamous for living in a world that mixes fantasy and reality, and ignoring which is which. And once he's got things set up, Chabon moves his pieces on the board with great precision, the story gathering momentum until, by the end, it's turned into a page-turner in the best sense: not only does the reader care for what's going to happen to the characters, the ideas, too, have taken almost physical shape and their urgency is no less crucial. And yeah, in case you were ever in doubt (or haven't read any of Chabon's previous novels), he carries it off.
But boy, was I feeling a disconnect, sitting there with my iPad, reading the "enhanced" version. I keep putting the word in quotes because it's so incongruous: here I am reading about two guys selling 1970s soul-jazz on vinyl and two women practicing an ancient art and there are these bells and whistles. The most annoying ones are the audio files scattered throughout, which, if clicked, will play a minute or so of Clarke Peters, an actor best-known for roles on The Wire and Treme, reading the next block of text. I say "reading," but it's actually half-way between reading and performing. I've never listened to an audio book, mostly, I guess, because I don't have a long car commute every day like my friends who listen to them do, but to hear the whole book read like this would probably get on my nerves. Then there's the fact that the excerpts seem to be chosen more or less at random: I can't figure out any rationale for the choices.
Next there's the music: the title page of the book performs "Theme from Telegraph Avenue," by the Wakanda Philharmmonic Orchestra, a nice slab of revivalist soul-jazz with a B-3 Hammond up front (which is a reference to the old jazz musician, of course), and then there's the "Telegraph Avenue Mix Tape," nine classic selections by the likes of Roy Ayers, Bobbi Humphrey, Charles Earland, and other '70s sensations...except it's not there: there's a list, and the notation "Tap a song name to purchase from iTunes." Did they really not try to license this? Because it would be a very cool thing to be able to have this playing while you're reading this stuff, and I can't imagine it would have cost very much.
To further enhance our experience, we have a bunch of visuals at the end: the 1970 Oldsmobile Toronado that features in the second half of the book, and a bunch of designs for auto air-fresheners, tie-ins with the two films featuring the blaxploitation hero Strutter and his partner Candygirl Clark, whose motto is "Do what you got to do...and stay fly!" No reason why these, and the movie posters scattered througout the book by Greg "Stainboy" Reinel, couldn't have appeared in the paper book. Finally, we have eight short videos of Chabon talking about "the world of Telegraph Avenue," which are fine as far as they go, but the sort of thing one would expect to find either on the author's website or on his publisher's page for the book. Oh, and there's a map, which is too small to be really useful. I wonder if that's in the paper book.
Because here's the deal: these "enhancements" aren't enhancements at all. They don't really contribute anything to the book, they're difficult to use and to find, and some of them could, as I said, have been included in a regular paper book with no problem. Hell, to be consistent, someone could have engaged a reissue label like Light in the Attic to license and press up the "mixtape" on a nice vinyl record!
These sort of e-books, belled and whistled up, are being hyped by some as the wave of the future, but this, the first really high-profile one that I'm aware of, is a mess. Some of it could be budgetary constraint, some of it a failure of imagination, some of it could be due to the current limitations of the e-book formula. I'm happy someone engaged the iBook software for something other than textbooks, which was Apple's original and main idea for it, but after having had this experience, I knew one thing for certain: next check I get, I'm going to buy another copy of Telegraph Avenue. On paper.