Dream Days—On Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue and Studio Ghibli’s From Up on Poppy Hill
It’s often true that my written reflections on books and films are far more about me than they are about those books and films. That’s especially true of this one. It also contains what some may consider significant (if vague) spoilers for the novel Telegraph Avenue and minor spoilers for the film From Up on Poppy Hill. Proceed with caution.
My first experience of Berkeley was a dream, a stolen week or so when, on one hand, I was trying to convince myself I could make it work with this person I loved, while simultaneously breaking apart inside under the emotional strain of pretending to be the boy I believed she (and my family and society and the world) wanted me to be. Unable to come clean, to admit to myself or to her or to anyone else in my life what I was feeling, I instead let things fall apart in a way that was spectacularly painful for numerous people. But for snatches here and there during that week, those moments when I deluded myself into thinking that things might work, my life felt magical, and everything was wondrous and strange; not least of all Berkeley itself, the bustle of life along Telegraph Avenue fascinating to me, visiting, as I was, from the strip-mall-plastered cultural barrens of the San Fernando Valley.
Some years later, long after everything had fallen apart with this person I loved but before I’d found it in myself to be honest with my friends, I wandered, with a friend, in a torrential downpour, the parts of Berkeley where I’d spent that week. This helped to wash away some of my ghosts, but not all.
Now, today, I live in Berkeley. I’m far more satisfied here than I ever was in Reseda or Van Nuys, but exposure has made the neighborhood, for all its beauty that I am grateful for each time I go for a stroll, mundane.
Michael Chabon is a novelist whose works, for me, have veered between the mundane and the transcendent. I doubt that if I were to first read The Mysteries of Pittsburgh today, it would resonate with me much at all, but it was the perfect book for that frightening first year out of college; the sense that Art Bechstein’s life is full of magical possibilities seeped out of the pages and into my own existence. And The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is one of the most shimmering, revelatory works I’ve ever read. Meanwhile, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, despite its alternate-history setting and its unlikely mixture of cultural influences and literary styles, was intellectually engaging to me but never got my emotions off the ground. As I ventured into his latest novel, Telegraph Avenue, I wondered if the landscape of its pages would more closely resemble the real one I lived in day in and day out, or the magical one in my painful, dreamlike memories.
Telegraph Avenue is the story of two deeply intertwined families. Gwen Shanks and Archy Stallings make up one of those families. Stallings is a wonderfully fitting last name for Archy, who has a habit of postponing every major decision life demands he make. (There are echoes here of Grady Tripp, the writer and professor at the center of Chabon’s novel Wonder Boys. Both men are reluctant to confront the realities of their lives, which put increasing pressure on them to become more reliable and responsible.) Gwen is a midwife, one half of the Berkeley Birth Partners, and is also pregnant, which is just one of the many factors encouraging Archy to re-evaluate his personal behavior and his professional situation. That situation involves running Brokeland Records, a beloved but not especially profitable independent record store. Gwen’s fellow Berkeley Birth Partner is Aviva Roth-Jaffe, while Archy runs Brokeland with Gwen’s husband, Nat Jaffe. Both of these longstanding partnerships are shaken up in the summer of 2004, as Brokeland is threatened by plans to build a chain megamall in the area, and Gwen has a heated confrontation with a racist doctor who then takes actions which could result in the Berkeley Birth Partners losing their license to practice.
Complicating matters between the families even further, Archy’s teenage son Titus, with whom he’s had no contact, arrives in their lives, and Julius “Julie” Jaffe, Aviva and Nat’s teenage son, becomes smitten with him.
For the novel’s first 400 pages or so, I felt that the East Bay in its pages was the one right outside my window, that one I set foot in every day. I grew to love its characters and admired how Chabon explored issues of race and privilege between them in ways that was always compassionate and humanizing for all involved. At one point, Gwen vents,
“I’m sick of having no power in this game, Aviva…Of always fighting against feeling useless. Of how sad it makes me feel that sisters won’t go to a midwife. Also, frankly, I’m sick of overprivileged, neurotic, crazy-ass (white ladies) with their white-lady latex allergies, and their white-lady OCD birth plans, and that bullshit white-lady machismo competition thing they all get into.”
By the time Gwen goes on this tear, we’ve spent enough time with her to not be taken aback or alienated by her anger, but to understand that of course she would feel this way. We also understand why Aviva is hurt by Gwen’s words.
But in its final stretch, Telegraph Avenue becomes tinged with transcendence. Like the zeppelin that represents the Dogpile corporation which seeks to build that megamall that threatens Brokeland’s existence taking flight, Telegraph Avenue finally found some emotional lift. It is a novel that understands that things don’t always work out the way we want them to, but that we usually find a way to carry on and to take our pain with us. In its closing passages, my heart was pierced by the evolving relationship of Julie and Titus, a complex and in many ways unsatisfactory love that endures in a way that is both tremendously limited and tremendously liberating. As I finished the novel, I realized that the dreamlike East Bay of that stolen week and the East Bay of my day-to-day life are, of course, one and the same.
No sooner had I finished the novel than I dashed out the door of my apartment and walked in the direction of Telegraph Avenue to catch the latest Studio Ghibli film, From Up on Poppy Hill. As lush and beautiful as any film Ghibli has produced, Poppy Hill focuses on Umi, a high-school student living in Yokohama in 1963. Japan is looking forward to its future—the promise of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics lingers on the horizon—but also still haunted by its past. Umi’s father was a sailor aboard a supply ship that sank during the Korean War, and every day, in remembrance of him, she hoists signal flags over the Port of Yokohama.
Unfortunately, Umi is largely viewed as remarkable throughout the story for the extent to which she embodies the traditional feminine ideals of cooking and cleaning, and as a result, she doesn’t quite earn a place as one of the great heroines of Studio Ghibli. The boys we get to know at Umi’s high school make use of a historic but dilapidated clubhouse, where they passionately study philosophy, astronomy, chemistry and other subjects. Once the rundown building is marked for demolition, Umi aims to save the day by organizing a cadre of girls to come in and help tidy the place up. The boys, meanwhile, are depicted as being “charmingly clueless” about how to handle these domestic, cleaning-and-tidying tasks.
Still, Umi is a tremendously likable character, and the romance that springs up between her and Shun (who enlists Umi’s help with stencils, partially because of her neat handwriting) is tender and sweet. I was particularly touched by one moment, when it seems as if Umi and Shun can never be together, but she tells him she loves him anyway. No doubt encouraged by the memories of my own past that Telegraph Avenue, in its own oblique way, has had me considering lately, I’ve been giving no small amount of thought to the cost of a life lived in lies and half-truths. (My own compartmentalized past is probably also part of the reason I’m fascinated by the show The Americans, in which relationships are routinely fucked up as a result of lives lived in boxes and characters’ unwillingness or inability to admit their love for each other and communicate openly.) Part of me has no patience anymore for anything less than total honesty where matters of the heart are concerned. But at the same time, my own life is still so complicated by the reality of my being transgender (on top of all the things that can complicate love for anyone and everyone) that, when love comes along, I feel like to admit to it would only be to let the complications of my own life spread outward and complicate others’ lives, as well. I admired Umi’s forthrightness in that moment, her unwillingness to compartmentalize her love, “pointless” as its expression seemed to be.