After my disappointment that Skippy Dies was eliminated from The Morning News Tournament of Books, I decided I should read the book that beat it, and which eventually won in the final round by a one-vote margin, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, just out in paperback. After beating Skippy, Goon Squad was beaten by Franzen’s heavyweight, but came back in the zombie round and eventually met Freedom (again) in the finals.
Some of the comments from judges choosing Goon Squad:
- Sarah Manguso: Franzen made me weep for lost love, but Egan reminded me that death is coming.
- Jennifer Weiner: Egan gets my vote, because if Franzen takes the prize, then the terrorists win (and because even if he doesn’t, you know the Los Angeles Times will run his picture anyhow).
- Anthony Doerr: Which of these two books might help, to borrow Zadie’s Smith’s clause, “shake the novel out of its present complacency?” Egan’s.
- Michele Filgate: There’s no comparison. Egan’s novel is innovative and playful, while simultaneously smart and captivating.
- Andrew Womack: For me, this decision comes down to pacing, and Franzen is the Pink Floyd to Egan’s Sex Pistols; by the end of Freedom I couldn’t take another meandering guitar solo, while I was dazzled by how much Goon Squad packed into such a compact space.
Jennifer Egan (on hearing she won):
- A rooster will fit perfectly into our Brooklyn landscape…our sons will be thrilled; our two cats, even more so.
I just finished it, and I was blown away. I wasn’t expecting to like it much: a “novel” of connected short stories, ho hum. An entire chapter done using a piece of software implicated in the 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster (PowerPoint), yetch. But the way the stories weave through time and from one character’s viewpoint to another, never so obvious as to touch the same scene twice, but covering such a wide swath of time was amazing. For me, it wasn’t until the last chapter, which takes place at some point in the 2020’s, that the collective effective of the stories really came together into a very real feeling for the things we gain and (mostly) lose in our lives; the way our decisions combine to make a life.
The final contest in the Tournament really was a fitting one—both Egan and Franzen are attempting to describe modern life in America (as cliché as that sounds). Franzen does this by filling his book with the full lives of his three main characters. Egan does it by sprinkling her chapters with short bursts from a wide range of related characters, varying perspective, time, age, and narrative style in each. The challenge for Franzen is how to tell the full story of three people without the reader growing sick of them. The challenge for Egan is getting us to actually care about the characters in the short time we spend with them, or at the very least be willing to listen to what they have to say.
She succeeds, spectacularly.
I just finished Swamplandia!, the first novel by one of The New Yorker’s 20 under 40 list (the author, Karen Russell was born in, gaak!, 1981) about a family of alligator wrestlers in the Thousand Islands region of Florida. Despite that description, it’s a lot less Geek Love, and a lot more non-traditional Bildungsroman. I enjoyed the book, particularly how convincingly the environments of the characters were drawn. The details, sights, sounds and smells of the Florida swamps and jungles, and the unpleasant realities of a low-income job at an amusement park (or really anywhere else):
…the hours contracted or accordioned outward depending on several variables that Kiwi had catalogued: difficulty of task, boredom of task, degree to which task humiliates me personally.
The main character is the girl Ava, who narrates her half of the story in the first person, but I found I enjoyed Kiwi and his struggles on the mainland more. Once the story got going (which for me, was when all the characters had left Swamplandia!) I ripped through it in a couple days.
I hadn’t realized how much southern Florida had been destroyed by a variety of ill-advised Army Core of Engineers projects and non-native species introductions. This book, and Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country (which I read in 2009) really makes you appreciate what the place must have been like before humans got around to messing around with it.
I’ve started reading Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon’s masterwork. I tried to read it many years ago, and gave up after 100 pages. This time around, I’m familiar enough with Pynchon’s themes and style of writing that I don’t think I’ll run into the trouble I had before. I’m reading it with Steven Weisenburger’s Companion as well as Zak Smith’s page by page Pictures, which are helping to make it easier to discern the narrator and location of the action in each episode. Smith’s illustration for the following quote appears to the right. Page 49 of the book, which takes place during the Nazi V2 rocket attacks on London:
All over this frost and harrowed city…as once again the floor is a giant lift propelling you with no warning toward your ceiling—replaying now as the walls are blown outward, bricks and mortar showering down, your sudden paralysis as death comes to wrap and stun…and the sight of your blood spurting from the flaccid stub of artery, the snowy roofslates fallen across half your bed, the cinema kiss never complete, you were pinned and stared at a crumpled cigarette pack for two hours in pain, you could hear them crying from the rows either side but couldn’t move.
So far I’m really enjoying the book, despite the investment I’ve decided to make in trying to understand everything I’m reading. Pynchon, as always, writes like a brilliant madman.
Here’s a brief conversation, overheard on the Pynchon-L mailing list, for those of you on the fence about reading GR:
M.R. I am a new member to this list, and in fact to Pynchon’s writing. What would folks recommend as my first read?
K. You don’t want to die without having read Gravity’s Rainbow, so why take chances?
Once again, I’ve neglected my blog. My new job, the pressures of getting all our work done this summer, and the rest of life has kept me away.
Events: We’ve taken to swimming in the Creek. During the warmth of early June (which hasn’t returned since…) the Creek temperature rose to 65°F, and swimming was actually quite nice. I’m hoping we’ll get a few more warm days before fall so we can swim out there again.
Projects: I’ve made no progress at all on the new shed, but have repaired the bridge and got our digital antenna installed on the roof. I also replaced our chimney cap with the variety our chimney sweep prefers. Things left to do: Build the shed!, repair the glycol line that keeps the septic pipe thawed, fix and insulate the sewage treatment plant discharge pipe, reinforce the shed roofs, obtain and chop two more cords of firewood, install a heat shield behind the wood stove, get curtains for the two large downstairs windows and the sliding glass doors, and (finally) consider hiring a plumbing and heating company to replace and upgrade our system.
Books: I’ve read quite a few. Here’s a summary judgement on each:
- McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Volume 26: Enjoyable fictions, interesting format, no real standouts for me.
- The Rest is Noise: Fantastic look at the music and history of the 20th century. Alex Ross is one of my favorite New Yorker writers and this book doesn’t disappoint.
- Ambitious Brew: Interesting history of beer brewing in the United States. It dispels many of the classic beer myths (the most classic being that the big super-brewers ruined American beer, only to be “saved” by the micros), and tells a great story. Prost!
- Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name: A very enjoyable book with a very memorable female lead. Vida has a great abbreviated and expressive way of writing that was refreshing.
- The Echo Maker: I’ve been looking forward to this one for so long, that I think the reading of it couldn’t be anything but a disappointment. I enjoyed it as a meditation on brain injury, but I felt like the characters were a little overwrought and stiff.
The rest: Andrea continues to progress toward her goal of running the Equinox Marathon. She’s out running sixteen miles (16 miles!) right now. I’m super proud of her. Meanwhile, I’ve been bicycling to work almost every day (13 miles round-trip) and the two of us are working toward doing 100 push ups in six weeks. Maybe by the next photo of me in the Creek, I’ll be ripped.
I wish there were stronger ways than words to express how ruinous George W. Bush has been to our country. From McSweeney’s Where to Invade Next:
So I came back to see him a few weeks later [a few weeks after 9/11], and by that time we were bombing in Afghanistan. I said, ‘Are we still going to war with Iraq?’ And he said, ‘Oh, it’s worse than that.’ He reached over on his desk. He picked up a piece of paper. And he said, ‘I just got this down from upstairs’—meaning the Secretary of Defense’s Office—‘today.’ And he said, ‘This is a memo that describes how we’re going to take out seven countries in five years.’
—General Wesley Clark.
The seven countries Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld wanted to “take out” are: Iran, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, Syria, Sudan and North Korea. This book, edited by Stephen Elliot lays out the case the Bush Administration would like to have made had their plans in Iraq not gone so horribly wrong (“Mission Accomplished”, jackass). It’s quite sobering reading, because these really are bad places, and in the case of Sudan, something really needs to be done. But most of these countries (all of them?) were made far more dangerous by the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and it’s clear (to me anyway) that this is pretty much our fault. We elected Bush (sort of). Frigging twice (kinda). We elected the Congress that rubber stamped everything he did. We allowed the media to become a corporate shill for the Administration. And now all of the good will we might have had to effect change in the world is lost. To help in Sudan.