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- Words That Don't Rhyme With Orange
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- Issues With Catching Fire, part 2
- Issues With Catching Fire, part 1
Here's the thing: Jennifer Egan's A Visit From The Goon Squad is pretty good. It's this kind of spiraling, self-destructing narrative about a collection of people loosely associated with the punk rock/independent music scene in the 80s and 90s. The writing is mostly great, and roughly half of the characters (there are a few dozen) seem fully formed and vivid despite short amounts of page-time.
As you wander from chapter to chapter, getting further and further from where you started, the novel actually starts to get further and further from, like, being a novel. It sort of degrades? Which is a pretty cool trick at first. (Though you could ALSO make a pretty compelling argument that it IS NOT a novel at all, but rather a collection of short stories. What makes this a novel and Junot Diaz's Drown a short story collection? An arbitrary decision from someone at a publishing company, I guess?)
But A. Egan doesn't really stick to to that whole infinite regress thing and B. Some of it ends up being terrible.
Like: mid-way through the novel we get an article written in a very obvious parody of David Foster Wallace's style. As someone who has criticized and appreciated DFW in equal measure, and in fact as a person who quit reading Infinite Jest in favor of this book, I could appreciate that. But it goes on and on, to the point where--much like the experience of reading Infinite Jest--you're saying "I GET IT, MOVE ON PLEASE." And then the DFWesque character sexually assualts someone. Huh! So was he really mean to Jennifer Egan at a party once or something? (And didn't Jeffery Eugenides recently allegedly base an unflattering character on DFW? Has the statute of limitations expired on grave-spitting?)
You should also know that this is a 9/11 novel. And there's no good way to work that fact into this blog post, which is appropriate given that it is not really meaningfully worked into this book, either. It's there mostly as a way to clue you in to the way we are drifting back and forth in time, but it also hangs over certain characters (including the DFWesque one) to evoke a certain kind of nostalgic melancholy. I sense as much, anyway. But the fact of the matter is, I was 14 (so like only a few real conscious years) when 9/11 happened, and so the sense of before and after isn't so evenly balanced for me. I remember the before, a little, but I only meaningfully experienced the after. So maybe the impact of 9/11 on this book is more deeply felt for slightly older readers.
But after the DFW thing, we settle back onto the rails and everything is fine for a while. And then (DUN DUN DUNNNN) we get a look at Jennifer Egan's view of the future. Well, actually, what we get is half her view of the future and half a high parody of what she's pretending the future will be like based on implied critiques of today's culture. This is a little hard to explain, but it's not the first time I have encountered this problem. (And I suppose you could consider this spoiler-y. But only because knowing about the dumb shit at the end will color your experience of reading the good stuff at the beginning, maybe.)
It's implied that fifteen or so years after 9/11, we've become a police state--aided by global warming, perpetual war, and everyone's willful submission of data about their personal lives to corporations on the Internet. The glancing references to this stuff is fine, though the stuff about everyone unwittingly giving their authenticity away to Facebook et al is a little heavy-handedly righteous. The BIG problem, though, is when Egan moves away from realistic, subtle mode and moves into symbolic jackhammer mode.
For instance: passing references to there being a lot more desert in the US, as well as passing references to the word "American" only being used ironically now, etc. =good. Explicit references to the earth's orbit being altered to compensate for climate change= COME ON.
And when Egan talks about the future of communication and the music industry, she really jumps off the deep end (into the ball pit). Because in the future, the destroyed music industry has been revived by "handsets" which are like semi-telekinetic iPhones that everyone has and uses for everything. But particularly the industry's been saved by "pointers"--infants equipped with handsets who are for some reason allowed to purchase music for themselves by pointing at things in a virtual interface of some kind. Where these kids get enough money to reshape the music industry is beyond me, but there you are, apparently the music industry has entirely refocused itself around children's entertainment, and all anyone ever sings is nursery-rhyme type shit. So that's a pretty blunt criticism of musical culture, no? Though what that criticism IS, specifically, I am not sure. The "fuck you" part of the "fuck you because..." is pretty clear though.
And then there's the future of text messaging. Egan depicts even her adult characters as constantly communicating and sometimes even THINKING in comically truncated texts, which is like the kind of future your grandmother would have predicted after having seen "brb" for the first time on your computer screen (in 1998).
U hav sum nAms 4 me? he read on the screen.That's a real quote! The idea that the Internet and instant communication is killing our grammatical resolve is an old trope, and these days it is an incorrect one. Twitter has done more to refine my writing and sharpen it than has, like, reading a novel! George Orwell originally and deftly sounded the alarm about the way language could be condensed to limit freedom, but, like, we heard him, yo!
hEr thA r, Alex typed...
And in fact there's a scene in which two characters seem exhausted by sharing a few words with each other and can only seem to express themselves properly when they resort to text messages. That works as an Onion story, but in a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel?
Goofy texts aside, the problem with the heavy-handed future shit is that the rest of the book is achingly realistic--and that humanity even penetrates the heavily stylized sections (two of which are very cool: a story told in PowerPoint slides, and a story that does something very nifty with second-person narration). There are all these pull quotes on the book about how wonderful the characters are, how much you care about them, and that is mostly true. So it kind of feels cruel to see them launched, at the end, into this ridiculous, heavy-handed satirical look at the future. (Egan has cited The Sopranos as a major influence on the book--and the Sopranos made some famous forays into weirdness. But it was usually weird for the sake of being weird, not weird for the sake of making overworn points about technology and privacy and--she also goes after blogging for some reason, I just remembered).
But that stuff is honestly just the last 30 or so pages of the book. Most of the rest of it is quite good. I would give it a shot, if you haven't already, provided that occasionally gimmicky post-post-modernism doesn't bug you too much. Have any of y'all read this already? What did you think?