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The members of Ramsey’s safari have gained a story they’ll tell for the rest of their lives. It will prompt some of them, years from now, to search for each other on Google and Facebook, unable to resist the wish-fulfillment fantasy these portals offer: What ever happened to…? In a few cases, they’ll meet again to reminisce and marvel at one another’s physical transformations, which will seem to melt away with the minutes.

I have a tendency to avoid literary award nominees (and goodness, I feel sorry for anyone mentioned in Christopher Priest’s rant about the Arthur C. Clarke award!) but this Pulitzer-winner was recommended to me by no less august a figure than Joseph Reich himself. So I figured I’d give it a lash.

If you’re curious what sold me on the book, it was the mention of Egan having written a chapter as a powerpoint presentation. Turns out I’ve already reviewed a book by the author – The Keep – which I enjoyed, so I felt comfortable cracking the spine on this book.

A Visit From The Goon Squad dips into the lives of a series of interrelated characters over a non-linear sequence of time. As such we only briefly get to ‘meet’ these people, but their associations with one another bring them to life. The one constant throughout the book is music. These characters are aspiring punks, record company employees, PR gurus, failed rockstars.

The chapter by chapter hops, skips and jumps through time (Nathalie Sarraute how’re ya!) capture beautifully that sense we have of our lives passing by. Even in the moment itself, the very same moment that in years later becomes a totemic symbol for what came after – or the road not taken – it can feel as if that intangible sense of now is already slipping away.

What also works quite well is how the enthusiasm of youth versus the bitterness of weary experience is captured in Egan’s Venn diagram of lives. That same enthusiasm and disappointment lends itself to a certain pretentious turn of phrase and what I love is how pretension is touched on without the book itself being pretentious.

Yes, even the Power Point presentation chapter.

So thankfully this book did not feel like trudging through Don DeLillo‘s Underworld again. The focus on music is a clever away of providing a linking structure that neatly avoid portentousness, affording even a lightness of touch.

Unfortunately the very concluding chapter of the book lost me. I think it was because for the duration of the book there was this brilliant drawing of parallels between the different time periods linked only by music – characters aging and then suddenly whiplashed back into youth on the page – there was this sense of commonality. This was then oddly subverted by the last section of the book nominally set in what is presumably ‘now’. Here Egan suddenly introduces the idea of language itself changing. Of course the notion of text speak somehow replacing the English language is not a new idea. From those deathless office emails with the subject line ‘Cna Yuo Raed Tihs?’ all the way back to post-Enlightenment era French campaign to preserve the sanctity of the French language itself from mongrel lexical mutations, there’s been this repeated concern that language itself is somehow becoming less.

Which is of course nonsense. I wonder if what was intended was that the textspeak, like the Power Point presentation, becoming meaningful and full of emotion shows that this constancy will remain even as these characters live and die. Their experiences, so flush with significance for them personally, are but passing moments in time. The book’s title is tellingly referenced by the recurring phrase ‘Time is a goon’, cleverly summing up the intangible sense of harshness about mortality. Music is the perfect metaphor for that sense of passing. This is a brilliantly written book and Egan is to be praised for not indulging in po-faced musings on mortality. Sadness and joy ebbs and flows from page to page.

A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

For indeed I am the sort of charlatan they seek to discredit. I am not what they say I am, but my deceptions are harmless and, I do believe, helpful at a time of personal loss.

I am a very nervous sleeper and sadly in our new abode the sound of passing vehicles – not to mention overhead flights – causes our little unit to wobble somewhat. Every time I jolt awake. This, as you can imagine, is quite annoying. But then I made the mistake of joking that any other creaks and steps could be the sounds of our own personal poltergeist. My beloved other half immediately freaked. See personally I cannot really see any reason to fear the ‘other side’, psychic phenomena, ectoplasmic stains, or indeed fallen angels. I lie awake at night terrified about home invasions and a piece of satellite falling from space and impacting on my roof…but the supernatural? Completely uninterested in it.

Magic as such is something I have difficulty with, because it seems like so much empty spectacle. There is a necessity to believe in order to be halfway impressed to begin with. In The Prestige Christopher Priest attempts to straddle that borderline,  that fudging of spectacle and the occult.

The rivalry between two late 19th century magicians comes to consume both their lives, a dual obsession that spurs them into more audacious feats. The Prestige presents the respective accounts of this contest from the points of view of Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier. This is not merely competitiveness, with both parties going out of their way to sabotage their rival’s acts. As they are both practiced in exploiting the gullibility of their patrons, whether it be through stage magic or séances for the dead, they know the weak-spots of each other’s craft, the key moment to stage and accuse the performer of being a fraud.

Then Borden’s act ‘The Transported Man’, involving him appearing in two places on stage mere moments apart, drives Angier to even more outrageous efforts. Borden has not employed any trickery that the other magician recognizes. He has somehow managed to achieve genuine magic. In his attempts to top the ‘Transported Man’, Angier travels to America and returns with a revolutionary new act ‘In A Flash’. Having consulted with the genius scientific recluse Nikola Tesla, Angier seemingly has confounding the laws of physics itself. Both men become so consumed by thoughts of revenge, that their intentions soon border on murderous.

The story is bookended by their descendents attempting to discover the reasons behind this intense rivalry, which has actually survived their deaths – assuming that the diaries left by Angier and Borden actually do present an accurate picture of events.

This is the second book by Priest that I have read. The first, The Inverted World, rested on a central idea that was quite interested, but the book overall felt strained. The Roshomon approach of The Prestige should create a sense of mystery, but once Borden’s secret – hinted at by suggestive choices in language during his diary – becomes clear, the book feels like it is frustratingly delaying the moment of the reveal.

Priest’s writing imitates the suspense and suggestiveness of the magician’s performance, but the characters are so deluded by their mutual hatred that their insistent company becomes wearying. The shared love of a woman named Olivia comes to seem spurious – is she just a beard for their homoerotic fascination for one another?

There is an interesting moment when Angier describes his impressions of Tesla “when I had seen his lecture in London he had all the appearance of a member of my own profession, taking the same delight in surprising and mystifying the audience, yet, unlike a magician, being more than willing, anxious even, to reveal and share his secrets.” Of course that was Tesla’s tragedy, that he did not guard his insights jealously enough.

The historical asides of this book are momentarily interesting, but for the most part The Prestige feels overlong and wearying with its venom and spite.

The Prestige

But that mathematical impossibility was not taught to us for no reason, and the teacher had not without reason attempted to draw it for us. In the indirect manner of all our education, that day I had seen the shape of the world on which I lived.

Christopher Priest is something of an ‘Ideas man’. That’s ideas with a capital ‘I’, as for better or worse his novels tend to revolve around a mysterious central premise, generally kept under wraps until the end. That other mystery monger Christopher Nolan filmed his novel The Prestige some years ago and embargoed media reports on the twist until after its release. He is also fond of the using unreliable narrators, to ensure the mystery continues despite what the reader has been told.

Helward Mann has spent most of his life in a crèche, learning what little he is entitled to about the history of the City according to Guild law. The Guilds rule over the City with a series of strict regulations. No member of any Guild can reveal to an ordinary citizen what they have come to learn during their duties. The ultimate purpose of the City and its business is also a strongly held secret. Helward’s own father, a member of the Future Guild, has told him little of what he expects of his son once he is called to choose membership of one of the several organizations that run the City. In the end, when the callow youth is summoned to the ceremonial rite of passage, he chooses to follow his father’s example and joins the Future Guild. As part of his apprenticeship he is assigned to each of the remaining Guilds to gain essential experience, including the Track Guild, Traction Guild, Bridge-Builders Guild, Barter Guild and Militia Guild.

It is also arranged that he is to be married to the daughter of Bridge-Builder Lerouex. His future bride, Victoria, is a fiercely inquisitive young woman whom he knew during his time in the crèche. The oath he must swear as a Guildsman forbids him from speaking of his work, but she continues to pressure him. She has noticed that they are moving. Helward himself is sent out of the city to work on the tracks that the City travels along. The wooden structure is dragged along the ground by a series of winches and pullies. He sees the sun for the first time, a hyperbola hanging in the sky that resembles a spinning top. The ground itself shifts and time is relative to the distance he travels from the City. People measure their age in miles travelled, as it is the only reliable gauge. No one can explain to him why this is and Victoria grows increasingly frustrated with his reticence, perceiving that he is becoming just like the other tight-lipped Guildsman that run the society, murmuring only occasionally about unseen threats to their survival. The Guilds employ natives from the lands they cross in this alien world. The men are put to work on the tracks. The women are brought into the City for the purposes of breeding. Helward is dismayed by these barbaric practices of enslavement and exploitation, but his superiors only insist that it is necessary. Finally he is asked, shortly before the birth of his child with Victoria, to assist three women who were taken to the City in returning home to their village. What he learns during his travels alters his understanding of the City itself and the alien world they are trapped on, far away from Earth.

This novel reminded me a little of David Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus, a ground-breaking book published in the 1920’s and unfortunately for its unsuccessful author, too ahead of its time. Inverted World also bears many similarities to Philip Reeve’s excellent Mortal Engines series for children. Those novels also described societies living upon moving cities, practicing a form of ‘Municipal Darwinism’, that ensured the survival of strong, predatory municipalities by preying on weaker inhabited structures. An excellent series of books and strongly recommended.

Unfortunately, to my mind, Inverted World’s mysteries proved to be cumbersome and did not hold my interest for the duration of the novel. As an examination of irresolvable conflicts between opposing perceptions of the world, it managed to progress along reasonably well. All the same, I did not find myself compelled to continue reading to its gnomic conclusion.

Sadly this was a tough slog for me.

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