Sunday, May 29, 2011

A Visit From The Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan

This book has won a bunch of awards, most notably the Pulitzer for fiction, which is no small deal.  In fact, that alone might be reason enough to make it required reading.  But it was also highly endorsed by two unrelated online sources that I often look to: Salon named it one of the best books of 2010, and the Morning News ran their annual Tournament of Books, and this book beat out Jonathan Franzen's Freedom by the narrowest of margins.  And since I had already read Freedom, it seemed that Jennifer Egan was next on the To Be Read list.

Less a novel, and more a collection of short stories, A Visit From the Goon Squad centers loosely around Bennie Salazar.  The stories jump around in time an space, and shift narrative voice, so each chapter requires some adjustment as to when and where the story takes place and how this story connects to any of the others. 

I understand the reasons a writer might prefer to link a series of stories rather than writing a single long novel.  I can do the mental gymnastic required to figure out every few pages who is talking and why I am reading this particular story.  I don't even mind doing so, if the book repays the effort.  David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas repaid the effort.  Elizabeth Strout's novel-in-stories Olive Kitteridge was worth the work.  I'm not convinced Goon Squad does.

Chapter Eight is were I started to question the bargain I had made with the author, in the story of La Doll.  "La Doll" was briefly introduced in the previous chapter as a high-powered PR maven who ran an agency where another character had a contract.  But by chapter eight, La Doll has lost everything.  We soon learn that at the height of her powers, she decided to have a party that would define her era--something that would live on in legend like Truman Capote's Black and White Ball.  She put together several (nominal) hosts, and a killer guest list.  She also designed plastic trays to be affixed to the lights, holding a mixture of oil and water that would bubble and swirl as it was heated by the lights, creating amazing mood lighting for the party.  Which it did, until the heat of the lights melted the plastic trays, dumping burning oil on all the guests.

Burn scars on models and actressess are fatal to careers, and La Doll lost all her assets in the civil suits, and served some time in prison for criminal negligence, which reduced her to the pathetic creature we meet in chapter eight.  Now known as "Dolly," she has fallen so low as to no longer even dye her hair to hide the gray.  The horror!

Dolly is in desperate straits, as she has sold pretty much everything that has market value, in order to maintain her obnoxious nine year old daughter in a ruinously expensive private school.  The daughter has forbidden Dolly from the school, lest her humiliation rub off on Lulu.  (Yes, she actually named the creature "Lulu.")  Dolly has acquiesced to Lulu's demands, to the point where she drops her daughter off around the corner so no one can see her.  And this is where both of these characters lost me.  Dolly has failed to take reality into account, and is making herself both miserable and crazy trying to keep up their impossible New York living standards while having essentially no clients.  This is stupid.  It is extra stupid for her to be completely in her daughter's control--this is not parenting, this is appeasement.  But when Egan literally has Dolly peeking in the windows of school in order to glimpse her own daughter, that's when I lost all respect for this book.

Because this is Stella Dallas at this point, and have we really gone back to the social/sexual mores of 1937 Barbara Stanwyk movies?  Seriously?  Why are we giving awards to a book that punishes a woman the way women were routinely punished in the movies of the Depression?

Look, if "La Doll" was really the powerhouse we are told she was, she would not have ended up in this place.  She would have had a halfway decent legal team who would have defended her from the criminal case, and would have easily impleaded the tray manufacturers, the light installers, the building management for the place where the party happened, and all of their insurance companies as well.  Furthermore, a PR whiz would have totally been able to spin the situation, milked the publicity, and used the oil burns as a badge of merit--you could prove you were important enough to have been there if you had the scars. 

I mean, would we have accepted a story like this about a male PR agent?  Think about Donald Trump, for example.  Trump has had numerous bankruptcies, has taken to licensing his name to questionable business deals that have cost people their life savings, and he keeps coming back.  He doesn't get reduced to the pathetic and needy wimp that Dolly is when we see her.  It's regressive and offensive, and I cannot accept that this is writing worth supporting.

Worse, is it led me to reassess the stories I had already read, and they cheapened as a result of this decidedly antique sensibility.  Bennie Salazar joins a country club, and news flash!  Country clubs are bastions of White Anglo Saxon Protestant privilege and prejudice!  It's like breaking news from 1946.  And what actually happened in the country club?  Bennie joined, precisely because it was the place that was the farthest away from who he was--he forced his way into a milieu where he was not readily accepted, precisely because he would not be readily accepted, and then he got upset when he was not readily accepted!  But The Incident was so far from being an incident that it just made me mad that I had been dragged through the melodrama.

Some blowhard military type had shown up at a country club party, and was bloviating about the risk of al Qaeda having moles in New York.  As this blow hard was magnifying the risk and raising the fear level of the room, one of the members cut his eyes at Bennie and made the smallest of head shakes to discourage the anti-Muslim rhetoric.  Apparently Bennie interpreted this as implying that he was both Muslim and a terrorist, which I think was not necessarily the case.  Second, the club member doing this is someone that Bennie so distained that he referred to the man as "Cardboard."  I don't see this as Bennie being excluded by virtue of his race or religion--especially since we don't have any evidence that Bennie has a race or religion.  I don't see this as the cultural majority keeping him down--it's a pair of buffoons being contemptible.  Any other interpretation is 40 years out of date--at least.

Then lets go back to the stories about Lou, the 1970s record producer who gave Bennie his start.  Lou had a zipper problem, several failed marriages, a testy relationship with his children, and a penchant for very young women.  Lou ended up having an affair with one of the girls in Bennie's circle of friends while she was still in high school.  This made her impossibly glamorous to the other kids, but she serves as a cautionary tale in Egan's book, another anti-woman story about someone whose life was ruined because she had sex.  That's right--this girl slept with an older man, and then disappears from the book except for a single chapter where she is back from another stint in rehab, unemployed, living with her mother, no friends or relationships to her name, and no future.  She then goes to visit Lou, who is dying horribly and alone.  Because the sex and drugs and rock and roll lifestyle has to have Consequences!  Nobody gets a second chance!  Did you have sex as a teen?  Your life is ruined (especially if you are a girl)!  Did you do drugs?  Unemployable and forced to move in with your mother!  Did you divorce several wives and fail to maintain healthy relationships with your off-spring?  Then one kid will commit suicide and you will die painfully and alone!

At this point, I was over this book.  I only kept going because my book club is going to discuss it in June.

Remember that I reached this point in the middle of chapter eight--Dolly's story.  And when I went back to finish the chapter, there was a plot point I had railed about.  Kitty Jackson, former ingenue, now mostly out of work actress, had small burn scars on her wrist.  She made them herself, so she could pretend she had been at Dolly's party.  Which was a small redemption of Egan for me--if the author saw the plot hole, but the character didn't, then I was willing to give the character some credit for being unable to see the solution to her problem for reasons that belonged to the character.  The detail of the self-inflicted oil burns meant that the author saw something that the character didn't, and in that detail painted a picture of woman complicit in her own downfall.  Dolly must have felt she deserved to be punished, or that she was better off accepting her reduction rather than fighting.

Sure, it's a small detail, a small measure of willingness to consider that Jennifer Egan might be doing something more than I had given her credit for.  So I finished the book, and now I have to go back and reconsider what she is doing in each of the stories.  By the end of the book, we have looped around to focus on a character who was no more than a secondary character in the very first story, but now some 10+ years in the future.  Technology has changed, the demographics of New York have swung toward the very very young, and toddlers are the major music market.  It's not exactly dystopian, but not exactly reassuring either.  But music continues to speak to humanity.

I'll give it some more thought, but I'd love to hear from people who have read it and loved it.  What exactly did you love?