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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.
Murray was new to the Hill, a stoop-shouldered man with little round glasses and an Amish beard. He was a visiting lecturer on living icons and seemed embarrassed by what he’d gleaned so far from his colleagues in popular culture.
“I understand the music, I understand the movies, I even see how comic books can tell us things. But there are full professors in this place who read nothing but cereal boxes.”
“It’s the only avant-garde we’ve got.”
When I was still in college I dared to express a negative opinion about Don DeLillo’s Underworld. I found it difficult to read, occasionally over wordy and slightly pretentious. Threatened with expulsion from several friendships unless I revised my opinion, I ploughed on and eventually during the second half of the book, something clicked. I finished Underworld suitably impressed with its themes of how discarded objects and hidden histories have just as much importance as official accounts of where we came from. DeLillo is one of the great figures of American letters. By amending my opinion of the book I found myself once again tolerated by my peers.
This is the second book by DeLillo that I have read and I am sorry to say…I didn’t really like it.
Jack Gladney has cornered the academic market in a peculiar field. A lecturer at College-on-the-Hill, he has founded and is the head of the Department of Hitler studies. He pours over biographies of the Nazi dictator, shows his students hours of propaganda film footage, keeps a copy of Mein Kampf close at hand and muses on the cultural significance of The Holocaust. Embarrassingly he cannot speak German. He befriends a new lecturer who has come from New York named Murray Jay Siskind, who is looking to follow Gladney’s example and set up a Department of Elvis studies. The two banter throughout the novel on how television inoculates us to recorded atrocities and how death underpins all media entertainment.
Gladney and his new wife Babette live with a sampling of their respective offspring from several marriages. Their children are precocious for their age, addressing their parents often as peers, a product perhaps of their multifarious parentage. On Fridays the family gather together as a unit to watch television, a ritual designed to deprive the box of its allure for minors.
Throughout the novel television and the mediated image is shown to desensitize the Gladney family and Jack’s academic colleagues from any sense of what is real. The only remaining reality is that of death itself, something that is impossible for people to understand. Midway through the novel the town is forced to evacuate due to a chemical disaster. Jack argues with his family as to the serious of the event. The children insist on the family seeking shelter after they hear the broadcasts warning of an approaching flume of poisonous gas. Jack questions them as to the intonation of the warning, just how serious was it? His authority as a parent is negligible, his relationship with his wife based on constant prevarication in the hope of seeming always rational. What else if left to define him beyond a fear of dying?
While reading White Noise I found myself continually comparing it to other novels. When Jack and Murray discuss violence as entertainment, the latter finally successfully setting up his own course on car crashes, I was reminded of J. G. Ballard’s Crash. Ballard also focuses on the fear of death, celebrity and the human sex drive, but in a far less disjointed manner. When Jack is lost to a neurotic fugue, unable to relate to his wife, caught in nonsensical arguments with his colleagues, I thought of Saul Bellow’s Herzog. That book featured a much-divorced academic trying to bring his professional intellect to bear on his neurosis. However, it was a far more balanced and solid book, at its core ultimately hopeful.
As a satire I found White Noise to be lacking in focus, at times too broad. We spend our lives waiting for death, so during the disaster Jack encounters a group that practices emergency responses to just such an event in live simulations. Unfortunately they’re not prepared for the real thing. Where other readers might see examples of DeLillo’s humour, I see only failed attempts.
I guess he’s just not for me.