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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.
What’s real, Danny? Is reality TV real? Are confessions you read on the Internet real? The words are real, someone wrote them, but beyond that the question doesn’t even make sense. Who are you talking to on your cell phone? In the end you have no fucking idea. We’re living in a supernatural world, Danny. We’re surrounded by ghosts.
I love ghost stories and the more I think about it – I think all of you do too. Look at the success of Stephen King? Does that not demonstrate that the modern world, far from deleting the need for supernatural fiction, still yearns for tales of things going bump in the night. Unfortunately there is this perception that ghost stories are historical anachronisms, fragile and quite absurd when exposed to contemporary sensibilities. Exceptions to this rule are Mark Z. Danielewski and Koji Suzuki, who both have managed to introduce fear of the unknown in between the cracks of our scientifically defined modern world.
Readers of ghost stories not only enjoy being scared – they like to acknowledge just how scared they already are.
I was exasperated by the beginning of Jennifer Egan‘s novel. Here was yet another street-wise New Yorker, lost in the middle of Europe somewhere, travelling up to a castle that he could not even find on a map. The language spoken by the locals is alien to him and he has already been told that the location is one of those fluid georgraphical points that could fall under German or Czech rule.
Danny has been invited out to this decrepid castle by his cousin Howard, whom he has not seen since they were children together. His far more successful relation has bought the property to mount an ambitious project, recreating a pre-technological space within the centre of Europe, where guests will be invited to immerse themselves in the peace and quiet that has been lost. To give themselves over to the sense of the imagination that can be atrophied by media overstimulation and virtual experiences.
As far as Danny is concerned his cousin is nuts. He can’t live without mobile phone coverage, or internet access. Those points of contact matter to him, networking online having almost as much importance as his need to attach himself to powerful people in the real world. Unfortunately for Danny his keen interest in power, and in those who possess it, has brought him to the attention of some very dangerous men in New York. This one-way ticket to Europe has given him a means to escape a very nasty situation back home.
He has another, deeper, motivation for coming though. A secret he and Howard share, over what happened between them when they were kids, an event that may well have shaped both their futures from that point onwards. Now Howard is a wealthy businessman with a wife and two children, whereas Danny has nothing to his name except the scars on his body that tell many a story about scams gone wrong. When he begins to see unusual things around the old castle grounds, hints of troubled phantoms and glimpses of an eccentric Baroness who lives in the keep and refuses to leave, he begins to suspect his cousin had ulterior motives for inviting him to the site. Perhaps even a desire for revenge for what he did to Howard years ago.
Of course none of this is real. It’s all the invention of a prisoner named Ray who is taking part in a creative writing class with other convicts and trying to gain the sympathy of the teacher, Holly, by writing about ghosts, conspiracies and dark family secrets. A neo-gothic fable about a clueless yank lost in a land where no one speaks English.
Then again, maybe all of this has happened. Maybe it is all real and Ray was witness to the tragedy from beginning to end.
This story is a delightful mish-mash of genres, psychological thriller, prison confessional and existential nightmare. The Baroness seems to have emigrated from an Edgar Allan Poe tale. When Danny tries to escape the castle it feels like a parody of Patrick McGoohan‘s The Prisoner, complete with a village populated by eerily polite inhabitants. Ray’s prison writing class is captured brilliantly, setting up yet another protagonist to cast a different light of the events already described.
I was pleasantly surprised and thrilled by the inventive narrative leaps and bounds. Riveting stuff.