Saturday, October 15, 2011
A Visit from the Goon Squad
(A brief aside: I don't think rock music or rock stars or enthusiasm about rock music and rock stars make for good stories because have you ever seen that work out, really? I mean it seems like sexy people having wild, sexy, druggy adventures would be inherently interesting, especially given the amount of striving that you have to do at the outset of a career like "trying to be a musician," but the fact is that "trying to be" pretty much anything sort of inevitably makes you into an asshole, which is why so many young, unknown writers [myself included] are so unbearable, and why no one likes actors, until they make it, at which point everyone likes them. Because either you shouldn't be trying to do it in the first place, in which case your lack of self-awareness is embarrassing and painful for everyone around you, or you actually are good, which justifies your constant whining about how you haven't succeeded yet, but justified whining is maybe more annoying than unjustified whining. And so but if you skip all of that nonsense and go to the part where the rock star is rock starring, well, now he's a rich successful prick and I hate him, and the sex isn't interesting and dear GOD are the drugs not interesting; the money is a little interesting but why do we have to deal with this rock star guy if what we really want to read about is money? And anyway A Visit from the Goon Squad falls prey, I think, to all of these problems a little, but it's sort of about how embarrassing and stupid the whole thing is, so it's easier to forgive, and then for the most part you don't even really have to think about the rock star thing, which is good.)
The novel is beautifully written. It operates much like a novel in stories, and in fact you could call it that and no one would blink if it were written on the cover, but it's not. Each chapter picks up a new central character, sometimes continuing a sort of recognizable narrative thread from some previous chapter, but always approaching the characters from a new angle, and usually in a different (sometimes drastically, sometimes very slightly) voice, with changes in person and tense and approach and one particularly radical, exciting change of form. I could very easily see myself reading a whole book in the form of what will probably be remembered as "the powerpoint chapter." Egan is an adventurous writer of the best kind, one who takes her literary pleasures wherever she can: in little bits of sci-fi, in more traditional literary forms and subjects, in lovely turns of phrase, in suspense, in horror, in people behaving very badly, in people being generous. I want to read everything she's written if it's all this good, and nothing else she's written if it isn't.
(You know what I mean? I actually wonder if there's an essay or a meaty blog post to be written on the subject of concepts, professions, and life stages/lifestyles that seem inherently dramatic but never actually pay off. Lawyers would be the classic counter-example, of course: television has taught us that a lawyer is compelling in any context, probably because their job is arguing, which is to say, generating conflict. Doctors are supposed to be the same way according to TV but it's never worked out for me. I liked House for a little while. I can barely imagine reading a book about a doctor, even though it seems like it would be easy to write a really good one. I don't know what would happen. If I wrote a novel about a doctor it would be an Atul Gawande type trying to use checklists and electronic records and careful, grinding bureaucratic stuff to slowly, slooowly raise his stats. That would probably be awful. [Or incredible.])
The sort of random jumps from character to character, from time to time and place to place, have all these weird subtle wonderful effects. Like sometimes you'll see a character and think, "Wow, that guy is interesting," or, "she seems sad," or, "I wonder what he thinks of his father," and you'll consciously or subconsciously look forward to the prospect of reading that character's chapter later in the book. But sometimes it becomes clear you're never going to get to read that character's chapter, that chapter isn't in the book, and there's this distance, like the person is leaving you--like maybe they've died, or they just don't want to talk to you anymore, like you've lost a friend. And then sometimes you read a whole chapter not 100% sure who the narrator is, or dimly aware but not really thinking about it, and then in the end it hits you that this scumbag is the guy you were sympathizing with two chapters ago, the one you believed wasn't a rapist, but he was. And it's just heartbreaking. This isn't of course anything tremendously new as a narrative structure, contrary to what some seem to believe -- I just wrote here like two weeks ago about Dennis Cooper's Closer, for instance -- but Egan's manipulation of the strategy is virtuosic, and she gets more out of it than I knew was really there.
(But for instance personally I find most stories about parenthood terrifically boring. You may think this is because I don't have children but I think the real problem is that when I think about it I find our entire approach to the very concept of child-rearing weird and perverse. I don't think I can explain why. I think it's something about the way most people seem to give up on achieving happiness in their own lives and instead hope that someday if they do everything right their kids will be happy. But then the kids do the same thing. No one is ever happy. It's awful. This is why I'm not having kids possibly ever. I want to create heaven in the world, not live for something I'll never see. [The happy kid elected president, walking on the moon, etc.] It's like religion for people without imagination or the ability to recognize a pattern. I do love kids, though. Also seemingly interesting but really boring: any writer, artist, intellectual, or other type of person where all the cool stuff happens internally and so you're reduced to spinning the camera around the character's head for thirty seconds, or the literary equivalent, to reassure the audience that something has happened.)
There is one real weak point in the book, and it comes at the worst time: I appreciate a lot of the weird world-building of the last chapter but the last chapter is, I think, easily the worst. Explaining why would probably constitute a pretty massive spoiler. I think it tries to re-open a question that it's already answered, and I think it does so with the least interesting central character and narration in the whole book. Suddenly it starts to feel a lot more like a typical "novel in stories" wherein the central character, viewed from so many angles, still finally eludes us -- "the mystery of personality," etc. Dull. I think this is another one of those cases where I'll pretend the second-to-last chapter is really the last. It even says "The End," which makes me wonder who convinced Egan to write more. Sadly, I think it was Egan.
(Why am I reviewing the contents of the book rather than the gunk I found stuck between its pages, by the way? Well, it was in the "new fiction" section. I have it for another week and then I have to bring it back: no renewals, no transfers. So there hasn't been enough time for the patrons to really muck it up yet. Too bad. You got a sort of book review instead of what I wanted to write, which was a dirt review.)