Sunday, September 23, 2012

Book Review: A Visit from the Good Squad by Jennifer Egan

Okay, so I don't normally read much that's classified as "literary," let alone books that win major prizes such as a Pulitzer.  But I snagged a copy of this book at a library book sale and decided to give it a try.

Good thing.

You guys, this book is fantastic.  I read a lot of the reviews on Goodreads *after* I'd finished, to see if my reaction compared to others.  I found a mixed bag there, with people either loving it or not seeing what all the fuss was about.  I'm in the loving it category, with two caveats that I'll list below. 

The book is more than a collection of related short stories, yet not quite a traditional novel.  This throws a lot of people who want a linear narrative with one main narrator or perspective.  You don't get that here.  But if you can let your mind unwind, go with the flow, and let the different settings and years and characters wash over you, you'll get the same effect.  These are people you come to know in stages, as they age and do things that reshape their lives for better or for worse.  Just like a linear narrative, you learn the characters' histories, their presents, their pasts, their quirks, and why their relationships succeeded or failed.  But it's not gonna happen in the way a linear mind wants it to happen.  If you can't get past this, you probably won't enjoy the book.

There was a lot of chatter on Goodreads about the chapter that's presented as a PowerPoint presentation.  Some people loved it.  A lot more of them didn't.  I'm going to say that I loved it because it worked.  The chapter is written from the perspective of a young girl, a daughter of one of the main characters.  In a tech-savvy sound-bite kind of world, it makes total sense that a young girl would keep a diary that's in the style of a presentation--shapes, dialogue boxes, diagrams.  These convey thoughts as well or better than Twitter posts or Tumblr reposts, with the added bonus of giving you something interesting to look at on the page.  As a writer, this is also a fabulous exercise in finding out how little you need to convey thought and emotion.  Do you really need 250 words on a page?  Or do you need five shape shapes, captions, and a slide title?  Can you make this medium tell a story about a family?  Can you make a little girl's confusion at seeing her parents' sometimes strong-sometimes weak marriage played out as a drama in front of her?  Guess what.  You can.   

If you can adapt to the slightly postmodern construction of the book, there's a lot you'll be rewarded with.  Here are a few of those things:

1.  Good writing.  This sounds obvious for a book that's won a Pulitzer, but two years in grad school taught me that books in the canon (deemed worthy of being taught) can really suck.  Good writing is not a prerequisite.  However, what you get here is writing that rings true.  That's the best way I can think of to describe it.  It's simple, too, without the overwrought ten-line descriptions of things that really should be boiled down to one.  Here's an example:
In high school you'd get in fights when you felt like this, but no one will fight with you now--the fact that you hacked open your wrists with a box cutter three months ago and nearly bled to death seems to be a deterrent.  It functions like a force field, paralyzing everyone in range with an encouraging smile on their lips.  You want to hold up a mirror and ask:  How exactly are those smiles supposed to help me? (p 187-88) 
2.  Interesting characters.  Will you like them all?  No.  Will you understand them all?  No.  Do you want to know what happens to them?  Yes.  I don't like Sasha (a kleptomaniac), one of the main characters.  She's kind of a bitch.  I don't like Bennie (an aging music producer), another of the main characters.  He's also a bitch.  But that doesn't stop me from wanting to read about them, oddly enough.  I'm interested in the way these people interact with each other and the world around them.  I like the way the other characters see their flaws and weaknesses.  I'm not sure if Egan designed it this way, but when other characters see their flaws, you feel justified in having felt the same.

3.  Moments that make you want to shake the characters and scream at them to do or not do something.  If you can get through the chapter titled "Selling the General" without a gasp or a twinge of fear, you're a cold-hearted individual.  This chapter is one of the best examples of literary suspense I've come across.  The thing is, I don't think Egan intended it for it be literary suspense.  It just works out that way because you really really want to see Dolly, Kitty, and Lulu get out of this craziness alive.  Dolly is a washed-up blacklisted former PR agent.  She is hired to do PR for an African dictator with a really bad human rights reputation.  Kitty is a fading starlet, already past her prime but still in her 20s.  Lulu is Dolly's young daughter.  The three of them go to Africa to try and rehabilitate the general's reputation, with hilarious and disastrous consequences. I dare you to not finish this chapter in one sitting.

4.  A sense of time as something that's carrying us further from who and where we want to be--not closer to these things.  There's a heavy-handed quote in the book that explains the title, calling time a "goon squad."  Hence the title of the book.  I don't think this particular quote works, but the message behind it does.  All of the characters in this book had dreams and aspirations that don't quite work out.  People die, go away, move, get left behind....and the people still standing look at each other and wonder why it wasn't them who got left behind.  There's a beautiful ache here inside the characters who know where they are, but still don't really know how or why they're there.  

This being said, there are also a couple of major flaws in the book that take away from its power, message, and charm.  If you're aware of them, you can get over them.  They are:

1.  The first chapter.  The character you meet first, Sasha, works as the assistant to Bennie Salazar, an aging but talented music producer.  She's also a klepto.  The chapter opens with her recapping what her shrink says about her problem and the supposed progress she's made.  Then we go with her on a date.  She steals something (two things actually), and tries to explain them away and cover her tracks.  The chapter feels gimmicky, as if the klepto part is meant to be a larger metaphor.  But I feel like I've read things like this too many times--jaded young woman with a psychological problem that covers up a deeper scar on her psyche.  I don't care.  I need something more interesting than a jaded, wounded young woman who isn't very sympathetic--especially as an opening chapter.  For me, it started the book on a bad note because I didn't like Sasha and wondered if all the characters I'd meet would be as lackluster as she appeared in this chapter.  That wasn't the case, of course, but I only figured this out by going *against* my gut and turning the next page and the next page and the next page.

2.  The last chapter.  It's terrible.  I don't know how it got past an editor.  It has such a gimmicky feel.  It only exists to punctuate the book, to bring back names and places, and to hammer home the theme of technology alienating us from our own future as well as our past.  It's clumsy and obvious and made me angry that the book can't finish strongly.  

This chapter recalls events that happened in the first chapter in a forced, unnatural way.  It brings back the guy Sasha went on a date with, Alex, for no real purpose other than creating a sense of unity about the book.  It creates a future with stupidly named scandals ("Bloggescandals") and weird "handsets" that are some combination of cell phone and computer that you can operate with your mind.  I don't get it.  People use these devices to communicate with each other in annoying text-speak ("U hav sum nAms 4 me?") that intelligent people would simply not adopt, if only for its ludicrous mixture of upper and lower case letters ("only Ets chInEs"; "pls wAt 4 me, my bUtiful wyf"). 

The book's culminating event is a concert for a washed-up performer, engineered to be a success through artificial viral marketing.  But somehow, the crowd gathered decides to like the performer for real.  We're told that generations of surveillance and war have made us jaded and we all just want something to believe in.  But the book hasn't been about surveillance and war, and we don't feel the way the characters supposedly do because Egan hasn't written about the future until now.  It's supposed to be a moment of hope, but it's a moment that feels false.  Unfortunately, the acidic taste of chemical sweetener (rather than real sugar) is what you end with.  Those chemicals sting and linger in your throat.  They are the last thing you remember about the book, which is a shame.          

Overall, though, I highly recommend the book.  Be aware of the gimmicks, but don't let them overpower what's good about this book.  It's beautiful, ambitious, powerful, and yes, flawed...but aren't we all?