2/3 Book Challenge: A Visit from the Goon Squad

A Visit from the Goon Squad was my book club’s pick for November. The book and its author, Jennifer Egan, have garnered a great deal of attention in the last year, and three months after finishing the book, I’m still on the fence as to whether or not it’s deserved.

I don’t know that I would have gotten through this book had I not had the Kindle with me when I was stuck in a very long line at a blood drive. I’m glad I was stuck in that line, however, as it gave me enough time to really get hooked on the story, if not on the characters themselves.

I can say definitively that Egan is a master storyteller. A Visit from the Goon Squad weaves in and out of time, with a number of stories told in layers, folding and unfolding onto themselves. The reader encounters characters at different points in their lives – Benny, the record producer, is seen as a middle-aged wash-up, an energetic rocker at the beginning of his music career, a husband cuckolded by his wife’s tennis game, a rock legend. His mentor is a dirty old man seducing teenaged girls, a middle-aged father taking his children and his young girlfriend on a safari, a dying man surrounded by the now-middle-aged girls of his youth. His protégé is a kleptomaniac 30-something, a college student losing her closeted best friend, a mother making art from her stolen treasures. Each of these stories – episodes – windows of time is deftly, though not always gracefully, presented, surrounded by music and an indelible scene, whether it is the Bay area in the 70s, New York in the early 90s, full of optimism, or New York in the near future, recovering but not recovered from 9/11.

I wish I’d written this review closer to finishing the book – or to my book club’s discussion – as there are aspects of it that we found problematic that I’ve since forgotten. Some of the female characters felt flat in comparison to the nuances of the male characters. Some of the scenes feel like they were lifted from a Palahniuk or Coupland novel – a compliment, but also a complaint (see my review of Then We Came to the End).

I finished the book on my friends’ couch in mid-November. We were watching their cats while they were out of town getting married, and I was combating a hangover from the previous night’s 90s dance party. I’m willing to allow that the latter may have unduly influenced my reaction to the ‘enhanced’ chapter, in which we encounter the adolescent son of the former kleptomaniac. Her son has become obsessed with the pauses in pop music, and in trying to explain their significance to his father, fails to say all the things he really means to say. Or rather, he says all the things he is feeling, but his dad only hears the (exasperating) parts about the rests. And in that exchange lies the weight of the book, the way we measure the passage of time, all of the things we want to say but can’t, all of the things we try to say but fail to communicate, all of the moments in time that slip through our fingers.

This is the third of at least 15 books that I plan to read in the next year for my friend Mark’s 2/3 Challenge.

2/3 Book Challenge: Then We Came to the End

In September, my book club read Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End, an enjoyable, engaging read.

On the one hand, I zipped through the book in a couple of days, so I obviously enjoyed it. On the other hand, I had a hard time determining whether Ferriss was intentionally beating on tired office cliches: the secret romance, the underdog(s) who go on to bigger/better things, the breakdowns, the enigmatic boss with inner demons, etc.

Aspects of Then We Came to the End were well done: the first person plural narration, the sense of futile frenetic energy in a workplace trying to justify its existence, the disconnect between real life and work life. I loved the bits and pieces of Chicago that emerged throughout the story. The interlude at the center of the book – a meditation on a woman’s cancer diagnosis – was moving and effective. The ending reminded me a bit of the “wake” towards the end of The Wire, when they’re “burying” various characters’ careers as Baltimore police: the simultaneous sadness and fun. But again, done more effectively elsewhere. At the same time, Ferris’s intended satire of workplace characters and tropes often falls flat, feeling more clichéd than clever.

Ultimately, Then We Came to the End reminded me a lot of Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs. This is actually somewhat problematic for me because Microserfs is among my favorite books, making me susceptible to over-appreciating the workplace novel and also unable to appropriately compare other workplace novels. The two share many of the same character types and scenarios, but I feel like Microserfs carries a different and more substantial emotional weight. It’s not that Ferris did something specifically wrong – it’s just that Coupland does it better.

This is the second of at least 15 books that I plan to read in the next year for my friend Mark’s 2/3 Challenge.

12 Books #6: Love in the Time of Cholera

To some extent, I want to wait to post about Love in the Time of Cholera until after tonight’s discussion with my other book club – but at the same time, I want to capture the things that I felt about it before they are tainted by my friends’ reactions, positive or negative.

Love in the Time of Cholera has been on my to read list for several years, since the magical vacation when I read 100 Years of Solitude and was utterly transfixed by Gabriel García Márquez’s prose. 100 Years of Solitude is a remarkable book, and from the first few paragraphs I felt myself transported to another time and place, immersed in one family’s epic, complicated tale. I had hoped for the same experience with Love in the Time of Cholera, and when my first attempt to read it failed to produce that feeling after 46 pages, I shelved it.

I’m thankful, then, for another attempt and greater incentive to finish – both for 12 Books and for my local librarian-type book club. Love in the Time of Cholera was my pick for March, and I finished it last night, just in time for tonight’s discussion. And by ‘finished it last night’, I mean that I sat on the porch until the sun went down, then sat in various places inside with Mina while pushing through about 250 pages in a couple of hours. Part of that pushing through was in order to meet the deadline – but it really didn’t feel like hours and hours because I was enjoying the book.

The parts of the story that resonated the most with me were the depictions of old love. Perhaps this is because I’ve often commented to Shane that I can’t wait to be old together – or perhaps because I recognize my loved ones in the compromises and commitments of Dr. Juvenal Urbino and Fermina Daza, whose greatest fight resulted not from an affair or in-laws or the many trials of half a century together, but over a forgotten bar of soap. Their love isn’t idealized – or ideal. In fact, it doesn’t start out as love, and frequently barely resembles love. However, their love is more real than the fire in the heart of Florentino Ariza, who whiles away fifty years in the arms of other women while hoping against hope that his one true love, Fermina Daza, will be widowed so that they can at last be together, rekindling the flames of a childhood passion which one never truly felt but the other can never truly relinquish.

As with 100 Years of Solitude, the non-linear narrative makes it hard at times to know how you feel or what you think about a particular character, action, or event. I’m left unsettled by the ending, not because it’s particularly good or bad, but because it doesn’t make sense to me. It isn’t consistent with the Fermina Daza the reader has come to know, and the final turn of evenings are a little too convenient for Florentino Ariza. Which isn’t to say that you shouldn’t read it – just that I don’t know how I feel just yet. Maybe I’ll write another post after tonight’s discussion.