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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.
Well tomorrow night’s the night! I am about to crawl into bed before tomorrow morning’s early start and flying down to Melbourne for the launch of Joe Reich’s I Know Precious Little at 6.30 at Readings, 701 Glenferrie Road, Hawthorn, East Melbourne.
Oh and I will be presenting the author.
Now as for the future of this blog – I am going to continue writing reviews. Frankly I am having too much fun. I also have some news – Stephanie has set me yet another challenge! This time it is to see just how many books I can read on the 22 hour flight home to Dublin. I decided to visit my folks for a short holiday and she thought this a challenge almost as demanding as my two hundred and eighty seven reviews….well it will mean missing out on the on-flight entertainment.
Looking forward to what the future holds people.
And if you’re around tomorrow night in Melbourne, do drop round to say hello.
As you can imagine I am ridiculously excited about this and eager to try out my Irish brogue on a live audience.
The event is set to commence at 6.30 at Readings, 701 Glenferrie Road, Hawthorn, East Melbourne. So if you’re in town, do come along for chat.
Right I am going to start practicing my vocal projection exercises…
Inside the safe she took out his recent will and tore it to small pieces and replaced it with the one they had both done on return from their honeymoon in Hayman Island, before all that angst with the trial separation, before he found out about her spending patterns, and long before he decided he would divide the money between the children.
‘After all, we both will have enough to live on,’ she remembered him saying in that pleading tone, as he looked with his doe eyes at a photo of the children. They thought they had him in their headlights, but now they will really have something to cry about, she thought, as she watched, mesmerized by the dance the shredded fragments performed while burning in the fireplace.
Today was a rough day. I woke up with a start in the middle of the night and did not really get to sleep again. Left to slouch across Sydney’s Bondi Junction this morning, much in the manner of a hipster zombie, let us say I was not in good form. I had an interview scheduled with an Australian musician at my magazine intern gig and had to brainstorm some further questions for an internet fandom-god. Frankly I am astonished that I still have two brain cells to rub together.
So it was with great relief that I had a light read to look forward to. Dr Joseph Reich has switched his eye-surgery practice for professional writing and I have to say I am very grateful. This was exactly what I needed to read today.
I Know Precious Little is a wry and witty novel, chock full of puns, that was apparently inspired by an early short story by Reich. The story is concerned with two women with some things in common, both having husbands with the same name – but possessing entirely opposite temperaments. Katherine is a demure suburban housewife, whereas Pree is a sharp-tongued harridan. The novel contrasts their perspectives on the indignities and frustrations of old age, each chapter presenting a different point of view, with several other characters stepping up to the plate to reveal more about the events described.
Death, physical infirmities and marital discord run through the lives of each of these characters – perhaps that sounds like a series of fiction truisms, but Reich invests so much incisive wit into his descriptions of these tired lives that reading this book passed the time as easily as a hot knife through butter. Pree is of course an absolute delight, a wicked and callous terror. Katherine on the other hand patiently tolerates such nonsense as entrenched book club politics.
This is a slyly humourous book that earns the reader’s affection through a clever line in observational comedy – enough that I was willing to forgive the age-old ‘Dr. Spock is a Vulcan’, quip! At times the tone feels like a combination of Philip Roth‘s upended epics of old age and the entertaining solipsism of John Updike’s Rabbit, Run. Strangely though the novel I was most reminded of was Tsiolkas’ The Slap. Reich also describes a tapestry of interwoven lives straining against one another, but thankfully without a trace of that other novel’s oppressive nihilism
I Know Precious Little manages to achieve that rare balance, being a quick read that has a lot to say about how people live their lives. Funny, entertaining and for a first-time novel, surprisingly quick on its feet.
With thanks to the author for my review copy.