Here’s how my 2012 reading challenge is going plus reviews of March’s selections.
Standard disclosure: I bought the first two books reviewed here and borrowed the last two from my local library. Several are included in my Amazon Affiliate store. I receive a small percentage of each sale made through that widget. All opinions here are my own.
4 down, 38 to go!
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Don’t be surprised if you start to hear the lyrics to the Steve Miller Band’s “Fly Like an Eagle” – Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’/Into the future – while you read Jennifer Egan’s latest. The titular goon is the steady march of time and most of her characters feel fairly sober and maudlin about its passage.
Nothing unusual about that, but nothing new either. And it becomes a rather plodding outcome since the book is not a novel, but a series of chapters that amount to bare-bones profiles of a plethora of characters, tenuously linked through time. That this book wound up winning the Pulitzer Prize is the big surprise here.
Egan, who also wrote The Keep and Look at Me, is a writer of solid, plainspoken prose. Saying that seems like a diss when it isn’t. But the connections she’s trying to make among characters don’t hold a candle to the brilliant plotting of a Kate Atkinson or a David Mitchell. And her descriptions are just that: descriptions. They don’t carry the poetic or metaphoric weight that Alan Hollinghurst’s or Ali Smith’s do.
Novels comprised of linked stories about different characters need the distinct touch of a short-story expert who can unveil a plot arc and wholly develop characters in a limited amount of time. Egan cheats the linked-stories formula a bit by using indie-rock producer Bennie Salazar and his sticky-fingered assistant, Sasha, as framing devices. Every now and then a chapter returns to one of these two, but never moves their stories forward in any plausible or important way.
Fine examples of linked stories exist: check out instead David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas or Ghostwritten or any of Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie mysteries.
Where 3 Roads Meet by John Barth
This selection was gathering dust on my shelf, a long-ago gift from a fellow book-lover. Barth is a National Book Award-winner (for Chimera) and wears a jaunty beret in his author photo, which worried me. These days, I need to be in the frame of mind for tackling this level of artifice. The three novellas play with character, storytelling and plot as much as they do with language. It’s at times witty, but since clever wordplay takes up huge chunks of real estate at the beginning of each story, it’s a long while before you manage to meet the characters and grasp the narrative flow.
Here’s an example from the second story, “I’ve Been Told,” which, the book jacket says, “traces no less than the history of storytelling.” This is absolutely verbatim, even though it seems like words are missing/duplicated:
“But now – fasten seat belts, folks – suppose First-Person Narrator of story to be not only its principal character, but It: the Story itself, telling us itself itself! Who’s in the driver’s seat now, I ask you, leapfrogging space-breaks and barreling us westward lickety-split through a landscape thus far featureless perhaps for want of Narrator’s supplying us with its features? Moreover, since Setting is an ingredient of Story, as are accessory characters like Yours-Truly-as-Sidekick and Dramatic Vehicles like three-wheel Lizzie, how can ‘I’-the-Narrator of ‘Me’-the-Story differentiate himself from them/us in order to tell you us (except, I suppose, as ‘I’ might tell of ‘my’ toes and fingers, ‘my’ hopes and fears, ‘my’ self…)? Well: ‘I’ for one, get dizzy just thinking about such things…”
There’s nothing inherently wrong (or unenjoyable for the reader) in using the structure of storytelling to tell a story, but, as with any story, we need to feel engaged with the characters and plot and what’s happening here is that the highly stylized writing serves as a barricade rather than a window. You never feel close to these characters and too easily the Dramatic Vehicle steers off-course, so you never become involved in the story either.
It’s pretty easy to find Barth on Wikipedia, but here’s an interesting PBS interview where he discusses his writing.
The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway
The problems evident in the Barth book don’t trouble Harkaway’s, which blends the macho-bravura style of Chuck Palahniuk’s and Jonathan Franzen’s fiction. I think Harkaway’s writing escapes the excesses of both of these writers and creates a darn fine post-apocalyptic world to boot.
I have a fondness for dystopian literature, so I was, perhaps, more willing than you might be to wade through 498 pages to find out where Harkaway was taking these characters, a rogue clean-up crew, capable of tackling the monsters summoned after a new and untried weapon is set off during an Iraqi Freedom-type military exercise:
“Professor Derek and his team, by dint of his enormous intellect and considerable innovative powers and their collective technological know-how, have created a sort of Holy Grail of bombs. Or, at least, they have created the science necessary to create the bomb. The engineering, as ever, is playing catch-up…But any time soon they will be able to produce a controlled editing of the world within a discrete area, stripping out the information and leaving nothing behind – not even regret. They will have made the perfect weapon. They will be able to make the enemy Go Away.”
We learn about the Go Away bomb on page 138 – having left the current-day events of Chapter One for a seven-chapter digression that allows the main characters to meet in a sandbox as toddlers, go to school and join the military. It takes till page 303 and Chapter 9 to get back to where we started.
This seemed a bit long until the reader encounters a late-in-the-story twist of Palahniukian proportions and then the character history becomes so entwined in the shock of the twist that it seems mandatory. (Still, it could have been shorter, but the writing of all the nuances of this brave new world and its many inhabitants is so fine, and you’re pulled in so close to these characters, that the journey is worth it.)
One could quibble, as one does with Palahniuk or the movies of M. Night Shyamalan, that certain events don’t make sense in retrospect, but there are also lovely and well-established characters woven in and out of the tale to create a perfect pattern. Harkaway never diverts from the main story just to show off; everything serves the plot. Even minor characters, like a bespoke tailor, are lovingly lingered over: “He is not so much unctuous as balsamic.”
And, in a world where so much of the past is gone away, there is still the humanity of people dedicated to remembering and tending their loyalty to the good people of their past: “He was never going to let those people fade. He wanted to know all about the places that weren’t there any more.”
There are surprises on top of the major twist akin to the wonderful moment at the end of “Star Wars,” when you’re so enthralled by the dogfight between Darth and Luke that you’ve forgotten all about that scoundrel Han Solo and thus his return to save the day – and Skywalker’s tail – is all the more exciting for its unexpectedness.
Harkaway’s just-released second novel is Angelmaker. This is a writer with vast imagination – a creator of worlds and intriguing characters and striving to understand it all. It will be fascinating to see where he ventures.
Facebook for Dummies, Third Edition by Carolyn Abram and Leah Pearlman
I’d been wary about signing up for Facebook, mainly because of the company’s flip practice of changing privacy settings without user notification. But, I finally gave in and launched a page for the blog and a personal page. A confirmed Twitter-lover, I don’t quite fathom Facebook, which doesn’t have the immediacy and, for me, the editorial sensibility of being connected to news-producers and -curators.
For a while there, I felt I was having my own personal internal debate about Facebook in the way that Jerry and George argued about Newman on “Seinfeld”:
George: Maybe there’s more to Newman than we think.
Jerry: No, there’s less.
George: He is merry.
Jerry: I’ll give him that. He’s merry.
That pretty much sums up the way I feel about Facebook. Hence this guide – perhaps there was more to the social platform than I was initially picking up on.
This is the second Dummies book I’ve read, and I found it packed with tips, warnings, Q&A, and helpful screen shots. Authors Abram and Pearlman did a great job explaining philosophies and approaches to Facebook usage here. The writing was breezy and engaging and, presumably, knowledgeable. I say “presumably” and indicate the edition above because platforms like Facebook change so frequently (the Timeline feature happened to launch during the time I was reading this) that the version I read was utterly out of date. There was almost nothing (from menus to functionality and concepts) that worked in the same way as described in this particular volume, which isn’t so much the fault of the authors as perhaps a rationale for making Dummies books that relate to fast-changing technology exclusively available online. I recently purchased The Complete Idiot’s Guide to WordPress, and I’m thinking I’d better start reading it sooner rather than later.
What did you read this month? What do you recommend I include in my reading challenge this year?