Michael Chabon on Obama the character

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First aired on Day 6 (03/11/12)


Michael Chabon is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, The Yiddish Policeman's Union and several other acclaimed novels. His latest book is Telegraph Avenue, which tells the story of two old friends, one black and one white, who run a struggling vinyl record shop in Berkeley, California. Chabon spoke with Brent Bambury on Day 6 over the weekend about the new novel, which includes as an incidental character a real-life person who is very much in the news right now: Barack Obama.

"I prefer to think of it not as a cameo, but as a crossover," said Chabon. "The Obama we know — or think we know — is a character, he's part of a narrative. He's been constructed by both his own literary efforts...and also of course through other people telling various versions of his story."

This isn't the first time that Chabon has dropped a real-life character into one of his novels: Salvador Dali and Orson Welles both make appearances in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. But this time it's a little bit different — after all, Dali and Welles were both long gone by the time Chabon incorporated them into his fiction, but Obama is very much alive and at the centre of politics today, and his presence adds to the themes that Chabon explores in Telegraph Avenue. The book is set in 2004, shortly after Obama made his impassioned America speech at the Democratic National Convention ("There are no red states and no blue states, only the United States..."). "That's the vision that lies behind the record store Broken Records in Telegraph Avenue," explained Chabon. "On a very micro level it is a place in which people come together regardless of their backgrounds." There's a sincerity and optimism that pervades the novel's setting of the novel, just as it pervaded Obama's famous speech back in 2004.

The novel's two main characters play in a band together, and Chabon wanted to include a scene that shows their relationship as they play together. But he wanted that scene to do double duty, as it were, so he set their gig at a political fundraiser. He consulted his "book calendar" and realized that this scene would be set in August of 2004, shortly after the Democratic National Convention at which Obama, then an obscure Illinois politician, made his memorable speech. So the scene became a Democratic fundraiser at which Obama was a guest of honour. But his presence is more than a mere gimmick.

"One of the most useful things you can do in a third person point-of-view book, which this one is, is to step back and get into the point of view of someone who is extraneous to the action, and let that person look at the main character and tell you things about that character that she herself doesn't know," said Chabon. He uses Obama as such a character, to reveal information about his protagonists. "I needed my Barack Obama to be a keen observer, and it certainly didn't feel at all far-fetched that he is. I know that he is a very good writer, and I felt that as a good writer, he must also be a good observer."

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