Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Struggling to matter with one eye on the clock (Books - A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan)

Will Blythe in the New York Times Book Review thought it was "pitch perfect." Oprah called it a tour de force. Even Mookse and Gripes liked it. It is Jennifer Egan's new metafiction of linked-stories, a concoction about the passing of time and how money can't buy you love or a sense of purpose - A Visit From the Goon Squad. At its center are two mismatched survivors. Sasha, whose deep reservoir of loss originating in her teenage years made her grow up too soon (as the Elvis Costello song Goon Squad would have it) and have turned her into a kleptomaniac; ... and Bennie, an aging rock-and-roller whose refusal to grow up as he grew old has has left him loveless.

Each of the desperate souls in Egan's modern melange struggle to make their lives matter with, again with a nod to Elvis Costello, one eye on the clock.
"I'll check the bathroom," she told Alex, and forced herself to walk slowly around the elevator bank. The bathroom was empty. Sasha opened her purse, took out the wallet, unearthed her vial of Xanax, and popped one between her teeth. They worked faster if you chewed them. As the caustic taste flooded her mouth, she scanned the room, trying to decide where to ditch the wallet: In the stall? Under the sink? The decision paralyzed her. She had to do this right, to emerge unscathed, and if she could, if she did - she had a frenzied sense of making a promise to Coz.

The bathroom door opened, and the woman walked in . Her frantic eyes met Sasha's in the bathroom mirror: narrow, green equally frantic. There was a pause during which Sasha felt that she was being confronted; the woman knew, had known all along. Sasha handed her the wallet. She saw, from the woman's stunned expression, that she was wrong.
"I'm sorry," Sasha said quickly. "It's a problem I have."
Bennie's assistant, Sasha, brought him coffee: cream and two sugars. He shimmied a tiny red enameled box from his pocket, popped the tricky latch, pinched a few gold flakes between his trembling fingers, and released them into his cup. He'd begun this regimen two months ago, after reading in a book on Aztec medicine that gold and coffee together were believed to ensure sexual potency. Bennie's goal was more basic than potency: sex drive, his own having mysteriously expired. He wasn't sure quite when or quite why this had happened: The divorce from Stephanie? The battle over Christopher? Having recently turned forty-four? The tender, circular burns on his left forearm, sustain at "The Party," a recent debacle engineered by none other than Stephanie's former boss, who was now doing jail time?

The gold landed on the coffee's milky surface and spun wildly. Bennie was mesmerized by this spinning, which he took as evidence of the explosive gold-coffee chemistry. A frenzy of activity that had mostly led him in circles: wasn't that a fairly accurate description of lust?
The bright, angular specifics of Egan's observations and the rock-and-roll tempo of her writing supplies that frenzy her characters are caught up in. The point-of-view is a 20th-century, George Eliotish, all-knowing-eye that alternately offers the reader brilliant snapshots of the media-happy, magical-thinking zeitgeist of our own time, or of past episodes that were its antecedents. Character is, to my eye, Egan's strong suit. In A Visit From the Goon Squad they are imagined in multiple time frames, sometimes introducing us first to their present and then going back into the past. At others she slips into the very marrow of a new character - a fifty-something down-and-out rocker, a has-been PR doyen, or the adolescent son of an aging rocker - and then catapults us forward in time with one of those Eliotish observations of what will happen that just knocks the breath out of you. She uses character's psyches as the engine of their actions. Her diction is literate and distinctive, but this can be the magic ingredient that weaves the spell as much as the one that breaks it. For example, I love her use of the word "shimmied" above to perfectly capture the movement of the box in a words that also describes a dance move I associate with 1960s rock-and-roll. More rarely, as for example during a particularly formative episode in Sasha's past when Egan writes that a character "origamis" himself through a living room window, I want to scream at the use of a writerly verb at the expense of my involvement. There isn't any doubt she can write:
It's all still there: the pool with its blue and yellow tiles from Portugal, water laughing softly down a black stone wall. The house is the same, except quiet. The quiet makes no sense. Never gas? Overdoses? Mass arrests? I wonder as we follow a maid through a curve of carpeted rooms, the pool blinking at us past every window. What else could have stopped the unstoppable parties?

But it's nothing like that. Twenty years have passed.
Stunning, no?

Egan is at her most effective in this book when she weaves such an enveloping spell. She can also be hilarious, as in a chapter about a washed-up PR queen trying to revive the career of a despotic military dictator via a media campaign with a talentless B-movie star. I find her less so when she plays meta-fictional charades with forays into second-person narrative voice, celebrity journalism with foot notes, and chapters written as Power Point presentations - touches I may well have liked better if I had read these chapters as separate stories. But this book intends to mock the means it employs and sometimes those risks pay off. Egan uses hyperbole to communicate that hype does not equal content. She hops frenziedly from form to form teaching us that being busy is not happiness. Egan's book weaves together multiple layers of time and form that succeed in conveying the complexity of Egan's vision without explaining it to death however, at the end of the day, I would say that the book impressed me and challenged me more than it moved me.


verbivore said...

I think I'll have to read this one for myself, obviously, before I make a flip judgment but I admit that I'm a little wary of her subject, despite all the stellar writing and careful characterization. I worry about the depth of the material, even if there are layers and layers of detail - does that make sense?

Ted said...

Verb - That same assumption was one of the reasons I ended up reading this book. I can find things to admire and to be critical of in this book, but I am very glad I read it for the reasons I mentioned.

verbivore said...

I've also been meaning to read Egan for some time now, and I may read one or two of her other novels before I read this newest one. In any case, your reaction and thoughts are a good help as I get ready to read her.

Matt Hames said...

This is a really good review, I like the timing of your writing style. She will be reading from this work on Thursday. If you can make it virtually, come and say hello.

Christy said...

I replied to your comment on my blog review of this book, but I decided it'd be better to put my thoughts on your review here.

I'm intrigued by your comparison of Egan's omniscient style to George Eliot, but having only read Middlemarch, can't quite make the comparison click in my own head. Makes me want to read another George Eliot book in the near future.

Like you, I found the meta-fiction chapter that was the celebrity journalism with footnotes to be not as effective as the rest of the book. That just fell flat for me.

Glad to discover your blog!

Ted said...

Hi Christy
Thanks for the comment and welcome.