Wednesday, August 17, 2011
The title got our attention. And the fact that it had won a Pulitzer, which in my book club’s estimation is even better than a Booker. We made that decision after reading three English–accented winners in a row and several of us have sworn off of them for a while. So we voted okay to a Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.
We have a rule that at least one of us has to have read a book before we choose it, and Allen said he had. So had I, but it was a while ago and all I could remember is that it had raised my hackles. I couldn’t remember why.
I read it a second time. Usually in re-reading, I discover things I missed first time around, but this time I recalled what had irritated me about this book. I didn’t much like most of the characters, the story was not told in a linear sequence, beginning to end, I never found an arc of any kind in the narration, and the point of views switched so often I had to think before I assumed I knew who was talking. The changes from past tense to present made my head swim. Not only that, one complete chapter was a sixty-five page power point presentation.
Seemed as though this author broke just about every rule I’ve ever known about writing a novel. Did she do it on purpose?
One critic called the book ‘post modern.” I knew about post partum, post menopause, post traumatic stress, post bikini-bathingsuit-ability, but I had to look up in Wikipedia to discover what post modern literature is. Turns out, Jennifer Egan followed all of the po mo rules, if post modernists actually have rules. And her story, Pulitzer in hand, walked away with reviews like “A new classic in American fiction,” (Time) and “At once intellectually stimulating and moving,” (San Francisco Chronicle). And many more even more effusive.
And I was jealous. When I break the rules, would-be agents tell me they didn’t fall in love with my novel(s), that the arc is obscure, that maybe I should just try writing from one POV, or linearly, or (now I’m reading between the lines) I should forget about writing about old women.
However, while I didn’t fall in love at first sight with Goon Squad, upon the second read, I realized that Egan had captured real people acting badly, and sometimes quite unexpectedly well, loving and not loving, failing and occasionally succeeding. She had a firm grip, even in the power-point pages, on the anguish of being human in a unsteady world that changes before our very eyes.
I’m beginning to understand that breaking rules, when done with purpose, can open a story like a whacked water melon, its characters and their lives spewed willy-nilly all over the place like slilppery black seeds. It’s up to the reader to pick them up, toss some, plant a few. Who knows who or what will come up green and new next spring?
Graffiti Grandma is not quite there. Not even close. But I am inspired to take another look at her, at what makes her human, what makes her universal. Thanks, Jennifer.