Friday, November 23, 2012

Jennifer Egan’s Goon Squad

Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad is that annoyingly near-perfect book that I admire tremendously for its technical qualities but can’t quite find myself loving because it feels too hermetically sealed. I’m sure you already know about the book: it won a Pulitzer, a National Book Critics Circle award, and lots of other honors. And one chapter of the book is written and presented in PowerPoint form.

A Visit from the Goon Squad strings thirteen stories, one of which is written in PowerPoint form, though you already knew that, into a novel that zigs and zags between characters and times, returning often to two core figures. Bennie is described on the back cover as “an aging former punk rocker and record executive.” Sasha is “the passionate, troubled young woman he employs.” Put in more direct terms: as a kid, Bennie was in a band called The Flaming Dildos, which I take as a name that refers to fakery and imitations of, ah, more real things, and Sasha is a klepto who loves to keep and display what she steals.

During the course of the book, Egan introduces us to those same Flaming Dildos, a bunch of San Francisco teenagers, including Bennie, who want to be punks, and shows us how they and the people around them behave and age, not always very gracefully. Time is the goon squad here and Egan neatly threads this and other motifs, like Sasha’s stolen goods, through the stories. Conformism and its “non” are everywhere, too: Bennie and his friends aren’t much punkier than I was. Sure, I went to see the Dead Kennedys when a friend decided to be a punk promoter one summer but my spikes were really a bracelet, not something dangerous.

“Neatly” is my problem with A Visit from the Goon Squad: I enjoyed reading the book, looked forward to reading it, and think it’s very, very good, but it feels a little too much like how Bennie hears digitized music:
Too clear, too clean. The problem was precision, perfection; the problem was digitization, which sucked the life out of everything that got smeared through its microscopic mesh. Film, photography, music: dead.
The italics are Egan’s. And the voices in Goon Squad were a little digitized for me, not quite gritty or distinct enough to make some of the chapter-stories in Goon Squad feel fully polyphonic or convincing. One of the most interesting chapter-stories was “Selling the General,” which connects less to Bennie and Sasha than most of the other pieces and describes the efforts of Dolly (a.k.a. La Doll), a p.r. specialist attempting to improve the image of a dictator. I don’t think it’s coincidental that the story is less connected and less music-related than most of the others.

The final story-chapter, “Pure Language,” set in a future New York City, imagines even more ubiquitous uses of mobile devices and txt language than we have now (*shudder*) but the hero is the guy without an online presence, “a guy who had lived in the cracks all these years, forgotten and full of rage, in a way that now registered as pure. Untouched.” And there, again, is my misgiving about the book, a misgiving that feels slight and churlish: the book lacks real rage. That may be intentional but I can’t be sure because the book felt so polished, so cleanly written and so careful, even a tiny bit high-flown. In other words, it felt technically perfect but most of the tone and language felt so smooth—too controlled, digitized, and ironic—that they crowded out the book’s messages and characters for me.

Disclosures: I bought my own copy of the book. I met Jennifer Egan, a college classmate I never knew in college, at a reading in Portland several years ago. I’ve read and enjoyed most of her books, particularly Look at Me.

Up Next: Eduardo Halfon’s The Polish Boxer, another book of linked stories.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Cutting Humor: Orly Castel-Bloom’s Dolly City

Dolly City, a wonderfully sick and absurdly humorous novel that I read in Dalya Bilu’s translation from the Hebrew, gets off to a strange start that offers a feel for what’s to come. When Dolly’s goldfish dies, she takes the fish out of the bowl and then does this:
I laid the fish on the black marble counter, took a dagger, and began cutting it up. The little shit kept slipping away from me on the counter, so I had to grip it by the tail and return it to the scene of the crime.
That’s not even the end of the second paragraph! (And no, this isn’t one of those books that’s just one long sentence or one long paragraph.) At this pace, it’s not long before Dolly kills someone and brings home a baby (not her own), a boy she calls Son. Dolly, a supremely unreliable narrator who claims to be a doctor, takes concerned motherhood to extremes, cutting Son open whenever she thinks he might be ailing. She also etches a map of Israel—“Biblical period… just as I remembered it from school”—into his back. Later she takes attachment parenting to extremes and glues him to her back. “Grotesque” can’t begin to describe Dolly and her life.

The doting, controlling mother line of Dolly City was most comprehensible for me, with Dolly becoming the ultimate clingy mother, admitting she uses her own (but not really her own) child as a guinea pig she says she opens and closes like a curtain. Toward the end of the book, she asks, “What kind of a thing is motherhood if you can’t take care of your child nonstop, one hundred percent?” Dolly defends her behavior to the final line of the book, where she says, “I knew that after everything I’d done to him—a bullet or a knife in the back were nothing he couldn’t handle.” Orly Castel-Bloom, by the way, dedicated Dolly City to her daughter.

Along the way, Dolly addresses topics like Holocaust survivors, practices medicine on the street (she offers her elementary school teacher an enema), and describes Dolly City as “the most demented city in the world,” a place with dense fog, impossibly tall-sounding buildings, and rattling trains. Dolly City is one of the more demented books I’ve read—and enjoyed—in a while, with hilariously twisted humor, a cubist feel (from all the tall buildings?), and, in a book where nothing but nothing feels normal, more defamiliarization than Shklovsky could shake a scalpel at. Bilu’s lively translation, with a voice that smoothly conveys the horror and humor of Dolly, gave me the impression she enjoyed working on Dolly City.

Up Next: Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad