“Such are the perfections of fiction...Everything it teaches is useless insofar as structuring your life: you can’t prop up anything with fiction. It, in fact, teaches you just that. That in order to attempt to employ its specific wisdom is a sign of madness...There is more profit in an hour’s talk with Billy Graham than in a reading of Joyce. Graham might conceivably make you sick, so that you might move, go somewhere to get well. But Joyce just sends you out into the street, where the world goes on, solid as a bus. If you met Joyce and said 'Help me,' he’d hand you a copy of Finnegans Wake. You could both cry.” – Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Book Review: A Visit from the Goon Squad

A Visit from the Goon Squad
By Jennifer Egan
Knopf Doubleday

We could probably spend quite a bit of time discussing whether Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad is a short story collection or a novel (N.B. that’s an inclusive ‘we’ not a ‘royal we’). Sure, every so-called ‘chapter’ in the book could stand on its own as a short story, but at the same time these stories are very much interconnected in ways that form—if not exactly a novelistic narrative per se—at least an interconnected web of concerns (you know like that big web metaphor in Middlemarch that I can’t quite remember and am too lazy to look up on the interweb). And the concerns in the book are upfront—most of the people in this book are in some way connected with underground and/or punk music, and the book tracks how—over a period of forty years—their subcultural dreams are transformed and shattered by the burdens of ageing; indeed, the 'goon squad' of the title is precisely the spectre of ageing, which the book’s characters approach with varying degrees of grace and resentment.
            If this makes A Visit to the Goon Squad sound overly weighty and ambitious, there’s good news: it’s not at all (and in point of fact Egan’s actually pretty bad on the big picture stuff, on which more below). A Visit to the Goon Squad is ultimately a clever, funny book that feels like a novel but reads like a book of short stories. And most of the tales in this book have very clever premises, such as stories about an administrative assistant at a record label with a penchant for kleptomania, an aging rock n’ roll promoter on an African Safari, a down-and-out publicist charged with the duty of improving the image of a dictator who may be guilty of genocide, and a celebrity gala that goes so awry that hundreds of famous people end up permanently disfigured.
            But more impressively, Egan’s stories are often told in inventive ways, including a story written as a bio for a celebrity magazine (by an extremely disturbed interviewer) and another story that’s written entirely in the form of PowerPoint slides. This PowerPoint story—called ‘Great Rock and Roll Pauses,’ which is indeed about famous caesuras in rock songs—is a highlight of the collection, particularly in its ability to be deeply moving and even poignant despite its unusual formal conceit. And Egan is very, very good at stories that hit the spot between comedy and sadness. On a page-to-page level, Egan’s book is impressive, combining a talent for innovative and unusual forms with a deft sensibility that allows the reader to connect with its many characters in a very short period of time.
            Despite all these many impressive qualities, however, I was underwhelmed by the final story in the collection, which is a piece of speculative fiction set in a near future, and which doubles as a piece of cultural critique. In this semi-dystopia, people are increasingly dependent on electronic ‘handsets’ (which are basically pimped-out iPhones) for every aspect of their lives, forced to live in cramped apartments, and are constantly subjected to insidious forms of viral marketing. The problem here is that Egan’s critiques are just not very interesting and repeat a variety of well-worn contemporary cultural tropes, including the ideas that reliance on digital communications technology results in alienation, that corporate marketing is insidious and awful (which it is, but we already know that), and that young people are basically semi-autistic and technology dependent. We’re in the territory of Today Tonight headlines here.
I may be making a mountain out of a molehill, but while these problems are local to this story, they highlight a larger problem for the book: A Visit from the Goon Squad is great at telling clever, little vignettes that conclude with beautifully poignant moments, but these little revelations don’t add up to much beyond a series of slightly dull platitudes, like that getting older is hard to deal with, long-term relationships are difficult to maintain and youthful dreams are often overrun by the vicissitudes on the world. I don’t want to pick on Egan; A Visit to the Goon Squad is really a very, very good book, and has rightly been nominated as a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, but it also strikes me that the problem here is one endemic to the contemporary U.S. novel more generally.
[Warning: digression on the problems of contemporary mainstream U.S. literature, which has relatively little bearing on whether or not most people will enjoy Egan’s generally very good book.]
Egan occupies a slightly odd cultural position—but it’s a strange position that’s shared by a whole swath of U.S. writers who are clearly influenced by the ‘experimental’ U.S. writing of the 1960s (e.g. Barthelme, Brautigan, Coover, Pynchon) on the one hand, while still being very much ‘mainstream’ authors on the other. We could include various other U.S. writers in this strange trajectory, including Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers, Rick Moody, Gary Shteyngart, Adam Levin, and even David Foster Wallace, for that matter. What’s common to all of these writers is a desire to occupy two often contradictory positions: 1) a ‘high art’ imperative to write unusual and ‘experimental’ prose on the one hand (despite his more recent, populist aw shucks-isms, Franzen’s The Corrections still has some pretty innovative writing in it) and 2) a populist will to do so on terms that will speak to the broader American public about their lives.
As a result of 2), all of these writers have, at some point in their careers, attempted to write books that double as social novels that investigate the problems of the contemporary U.S. And given the vaguely left-wing orientation of the above writers combined with the swing to the right (to put it very mildly) in U.S. politics over the last ten years, these types of books seem to be appearing with more and more frequency. The result—of which A Visit to the Goon Squad is ultimately an example—is what I am calling the ‘how we live now’ novel (N.B. I wrote this last week and in the interim Laura Miller has published an article on ‘the way we live now’ novel, which you can read here. It’s unrelated to my point, though.).
These ‘how we live now’ novels attempt to wrestle with contemporary issues, but more often than not simply reproduce the kind of banal, sentimentalised platitudes that A Visit from the Goon Squad seems to suggest. And I think I know why. The reason is that these U.S. ‘how we live now’ novels are entirely formed by the liberal-democratic mode of thinking. This is a particular limitation in the U.S., which hasn’t had a legitimate socialist movement to speak of since Eugene Debs and lacks anything like a true left-wing tradition of critique. When these otherwise intelligent writers try to formulate something like a critique of their culture, they fail for the simple reason that they are too much a part of the very culture they would like to critique. The result is not a political novel at all, but rather a narcissistic novel that, in its obsession with the present, is unable to gain the kind of self-reflexive purchase needed for critique (indeed, it is the incredible self-reflexivity of David Foster Wallace’s work that has enabled him to bridge these two desires without falling into an uninterrogated, sentimental desire for the ‘universal truths’ of literature).
For my part, I wish that many writers of ‘how we live now’ novels would jettison their larger aims for the simple reason that they just aren’t very good on political maters. This, of course, is not to say that writers cannot write novels without express political content—and the developing world, in particular, has seen an explosion of great novels with explicitly political content, probably for the reason that in such places ‘politics’ means a lot more than what Pundit X has said on Fox News. I suspect that the reason that most of the U.S. writers I’ve mentioned above haven’t been very successful with political novels is that, quite simply, they don’t have a politics beyond the liberalism that has (unconsciously) shaped them. I also note that, from my point of view, often the books that are the most interesting in their ‘political’ content are precisely those in which the political is often not explicitly addressed (Evan Dara’s The Lost Scrapbook, which I’ve been raving about for months, is one of the best political novels written in the last twenty years, but you don’t even know it’s a ‘political’ novel until you are 400 pages into it.).
Anyway, as I noted, this is all a bit unfair to Egan, who has managed to write a funny and inventive book that is really, really good—and contains some individual stories that are actually great. A Visit from the Goon Squad is an excellent work of literature, but it’s a book that would actually be better if it tried to do less, since it falters precisely in the moments where it tries to tackle ‘big issues’.

1 comment:

Matthew Selwyn said...

I've just finished reading this, and I would completely agree with your suggestion that most of the revelations are fairly mundane platitudes. I liked the inventiveness of the book, but as a whole it really didn't work for me.

My review: A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

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