A Visit From the Goon Squad

Book by Jennifer Egan

Annotation by Kate Maruyama

In my recent exploration books with different points of view which take place over different periods of time, Jennifer Egan’s latest, A Visit from the Goon Squad was a natural pick. I try not to decide what’s going on in a book before an author tells me, but Jennifer Egan’s style and the disjointedness of time and place of this particular book had me guessing, constantly, what she was up to with the structure.  In the end, I decided to let the book work for me, listen to it as it played along, as one would with an anthology, or a music mix from a dear friend. I was not disappointed.

Where Middlesex told one large sweeping story over generations in chronological order, it lost focus in places. Goon Squad never loses focus on its individual scenes and in the end, it becomes apparent that the entire piece holds together. Each of the characters, isolated in their own short stories, have their lives carefully threaded together here and there throughout the book and by the end Goon Squad comes together as a portrait of a musical, moving web of humanity. We don’t really get a larger picture of a beginning/middle/end story, such as we get in Middlesex, but Egan was careful to make sure we got inside each of the players involved at one point or another so that by the end, the book has created its own sense of nostalgia. We feel the buoyed excitement of seeing an old friend on the street years and years later, “Hey, that guy. I know that guy!” And the old days come flooding back. Pretty amazing for 288 pages.

The first chapter/story is of Sasha in her early twenties, on an awkward date. Egan’s gaze is so close that we learn a lot about Sasha, that she’s a shoplifter and a thief, but that she does this to fill an inner need rather than to make a living. We then meet Bennie, trying like hell to connect with his son, Chris. Egan goes on to bounce around through time, taking us with one (sometimes vaguely) recognizable character into a completely different world. On an adolescent romp through grunge band era San Francisco, on a very well-moneyed but disastrous safari to Africa, to student life in NYC which ends in an X-induced unfortunate trip into the East River, into a not-too distant future where the music industry is run by its huge sales to children. We meet Bennie as a teenager, in his prime, then as an aging producer. We meet Sasha again in her teenage runaway years, as a young corporate assistant, then married with children through the eyes of her daughter.

The point of view shifts, mostly in third, sometimes in first, one time in second person. I have little patience with second person for long patches, but Egan makes it work in the pages leading up to Sasha’s imbalanced buddy Rob’s dizzying drug-hazed night in Manhattan. It is a night that will have repercussions through Sasha and Drew (her later husband)’s life toward the end of the book.

Egan adopts the Latin-American magic realism trick of omniscient projection, which is fun. Especially in “Safari”, where, having introduced us to a cluster of characters in close third, and in close circumstances, Egan leads us through their adventure and then projects: “The members of Ramsey’s safari have gained a story they’ll tell the rest of their lives…Dean, whose success will elude him until middle age, when he’ll land the role of a paunchy outspoken plumber…”  She uses this technique in specific sections throughout the book, which gives us a sense of the larger fabric of interwoven lives, and helps hold the larger narrative together.

Egan messes with form in “Great Rock and Roll Pauses,” the second-to-last chapter, by telling the story from the point of view of Sasha’s daughter with a hi-tech journal. The result is a series of charts that manage to tell a poignant and difficult story despite their complicated format of bubble maps, flow charts and other illustrations. This section resonated with me, as my children are learning to write with bubble maps and various charts, all of which give me the giggles while creating a sense of despair over the loss of the written form. But Egan is able to effectively create a portrait of a waning marriage, a view into dysfunctional parenthood and a nostalgia for Sasha’s prior life as a snarky assistant, or further back as a headstrong world-traveling runaway–all with charts.

Egan has created something new, in an age of e-readers and people ranting about the death of print. I read my version on the e-reader, which, ironically, made the abovementioned charts hard to read (they wouldn’t enlarge). While I don’t think I’ll be incorporating bubble maps into my work anytime soon, I feel a bit stronger introducing a few more points of view into my story and knowing that even if it doesn’t follow beginning/middle/end, even if it doesn’t provide all of the details through a span of years, a larger story can be told in smaller brushstrokes, as long as the web which holds it together is very carefully woven.

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Termite Parade

book by Josh Mohr

annotation by Antonia Crane

Structure is what I’ve been preoccupied with lately; the superlative way in which a story is organized can keep a reader engaged. In my writing, I’ve been toying with brevity in chapters and nonlinear timelines informed by memories. Josh Mohr’s Termite Parade is a series of flashy vignettes that are thoughtfully charged with tension. The Chapter Derek: Waxes or Blubbers or Whines is cinematic and quick, like Akerlund’s movie Spun,condensed into a single paragraph. Mired has a poetic Nick Flynn patience. Termite Parade’s structure is unusual for a novel, but it’s Mohr’s characters that leave their scent long after they’ve left the bathroom.

First, we are introduced to Mired, an unstable Filipina drunk who, after making a jealous scene at a going away party, is dropped down a flight of stairs. Our conflicted protagonist, Derek, who also happens to be an emotionally arrested identical twin, dropped Mired down the stairs after she berated him. Or did he? They were both drunk. The reader knows way more than the characters do, which makes the book a delicious page-turner.

After Mired is dropped down the stairs and her teeth are chipped and gone, Derek asks himself “What’s the difference between lying to yourself and being redeemed?” Mohr illustrates this question beautifully with his clever, infuriating characters that are repeatedly forced to face the truth about themselves. They also get peed on against their will in a bathroom in a casino in Reno, Nevada, my favorite scene. After Mired is dropped off at the dentist, Derek dodges phone calls and drives to Reno where has a run in with some fired up jocks who decide to baptize him. It’s at that great moment under an ocean of urine where guilty, victimized Derek is finally given the redemption he seeks.

Another intriguing thread in Termite Parade is Derek’s identical twin brother Frank, an arrogant filmmaker awaiting his lottery ticket break in the Film industry. With Frank, the author takes a stab at the inherently pitiful and sickening reality TV craze and the narcissistic Hollywood dream. Frank films a woman getting mugged at gunpoint on a bench in Golden Gate park at night. When he finds out they’re a couple playing at armed robbery as foreplay, he decides to stick them both up in a weird demonstration of insatiable exploitive creepiness. Derek terrorizes the couple and holds them up while Frank films the ensemble. This the stunning moment where all of the characters become their most highly destructive; they turn into the soft-bodied insects the book is titled after.

All of Mohr’s characters in Termite Parade are cowardly, guilty, irresponsible and obstinate, but they desperately want to be better boyfriends, better brothers and better people. They’re the stuck part of us that wants to change. They are what Sam Lipsyte meant in The Ask when he said our lovers are “our destroyers” because we give them our tender termite hearts and sometimes they drop us down the stairs.

 

Underworld

book by Don DeLillo

annotation by Melissa Chadburn

It’s not about baseball. Thank god it’s not about baseball. Because it’s a tome. That’s to say it’s huge. 800 pages. I don’t particularly like baseball.  It’s linked shorts.  At least I treated it like linked shorts and in summary I would say that I picked it up and put it down a lot and it took a long time to read. It’s brilliant and stunning, but as a reader, you are unsure at times whether it is brilliant or insane. As a writer, this novel proves to be a great example of dialogue and description. I can’t cite all the incredible dialogue in this novel or I would bore you, even though it’s good, really, really good.  There was a contest to write an entire short story in dialogue, just dialogue; I think they allowed dialogue tags, but that was it. I wish I read this novel before I entered that contest.

Here is just a small example of DeLillo’s dialogue:

“Hey Bobby.”

“I’m busy over here.”

“Hey Bobby.”

“I’m busy over here.”

“Hey Bobby. There’s something we want to tell you.”

“I told you, okay, I’m busy.”

“JuJu wants to tell you. Hey Bobby. Listen.”

“Go way, all right?”

“Hey Bobby.”

“Fuck out of here.”

“Hey Bobby.”

“You see I’m working over here?”

“Hey Bobby.  Juju wants to tell you this one thing.”

“What.”

“Hey Bobby.”

“All right. What.”

“This one thing.”

“All right. What.”

“Shit in your fist and squeeze it,” Nick said.

Amazing. All the way through the punctuation, the drawing out, the repetition. That is real dialogue. Then there’s the incredible analogies or metaphors or similes whichever you want to call it.  For the sake of this review they will be referred to as ‘descriptions’

The hand going to his midsection to mean he’s already eaten or peanuts give him cramps or his mother told him not to fill up on trashy food that will ruin his dinner.

meditative pissing

little nagging needs

urgent sexual throb of the dishwasher

a living rebuke to the tactics of moderation

small ingrown toenail rage, a puny frustration

she was all ovals and loops, like the Palmer handwriting method

This was the one that really got me, that sent me reeling off the page and into the banks of my memories.  He was writing here of what happened after the “shot that was heard around the world.”  Which was on October 3, 1951 when the New York Giants played the Brooklyn Dodgers and in the ninth inning, Ralph Brancha pitched to Bobby Thompson who hit the ball into the stands for a three-run homer, beating the Dodgers 5-4 and capturing the National League pennant:

They are tearing up letters they’ve been carrying around for years pressed into their wallets, the residue of love affairs and college friendships, it is happy garbage now, the fans’ intimate wish to be connected to the event, unendably, in the form of pocket litter, personal waste, a thing that carries a shadow identity-rolls of toilet tissue unboltingly lyrically in streamers.

This made me think of my own ‘happy garbage’ – how I used to carry around a letter that was sent to me by a friend when I was living in a group home in Pacific Palisades. He wrote me a letter telling me he thought of me often, that I was loved. Let me know he was thinking about me. I kept that letter folded in my wallet long after that time.  Till it was thin paper ripped in the creases. Little flakes of white rolling off. He died. I have no idea how or why. This passage made me think of that happy garbage I kept in my wallet.  Made me think of sitting with a boy from New York looking out at some mountains in Bel Air and telling him how I was imagining myself lying on my side and tumbling down it. How it looked so easy. I asked if he would go with me. He said yes.

In a way DeLillo accomplished what he stated here in his epilogue not just for himself, but for me the reader/writer/sniper, in what could have been the most beautiful passage I’ve read in 2010:

you try to imagine the word on the screen becoming a thing in the world, taking all its meanings, its sense of serenities and contentments out into the streets somehow, its whisper of reconciliation, a word extending itself ever outward, the tone of agreement or treaty, the tone of repose, the sense of mollifying silence, the tone of hail and farewell, a word that carries the sunlit ardour of an object deep in drenching noon, the argument of binding touch, but it’s only a sequence of pulses on a dullish screen and all it can do is make you pensive — a word that spreads a longing through the raw sprawl of the city and out across the dreaming bourns and orchards to the solitary hills.

Getting Mother’s Body

book by Suzan-Lori Parks

annotation by Diane Sherlock

Getting Mother’s Body is an entertaining novel about Billy Beede, sixteen years old, pregnant by a man whom she discovers has children and is married to someone else. She travels from Texas to Arizona with the objective of digging up her mother’s grave to claim the jewels believed to be buried with her mother. Each chapter is told from the first person POV of one of the characters, with everyone having more than one turn. Even the dead mother, Willa Mae Beede, has chapters, mostly consisting of blues songs. We get to hear different perspectives on the same events and varying opinions of the cast of characters. It also solves the ever-present problem of exposition and backstory, allowing bits and pieces to emerge without overwhelming the narrative.

Parks writes with authority. She uses unconventional spellings, such as “yr” for “your” and “wichu” for “with you.” This device conveys the language patterns of the characters. Parks clearly thought a lot about the spellings which could have undercut the 1963 time period and looked like text messages, but the author seems aware of this danger and avoids it. The unconventional spelling did not make the book difficult to read and added authenticity to the dialogue.

Even though there were clues along the way, I did not know what to expect at the end. Parks is expert at narrative sleight of hand, redirecting the reader’s attention while laying the groundwork for a satisfying and realistic plot resolution. For one thing, she knows that there’s no such thing as absolute silence in a story. In Little Walter Little’s barbershop, “We go quiet. Just the sounds of the scissors going around our heads.” She incorporates small moments of sensory detail like these throughout the narrative, allowing the reader to get lost in the world she creates. Meanwhile, she’s building a credible sequence of events about incredible acts.

The most helpful element for my writing was on page 37. Parks has a character let us know that the mother’s jewelry was never buried with her. Normally, I’d expect to find that at the end, but she slaps it right up front in a chapter from the POV of Dill Smiles (how great is that name?), one of the dead woman’s lovers, who not only took the jewelry, but sold most of it. All of this information is repeated again at page 116, “I took them and I sold the pearls one by one, for a hell of a lot more than ten dollars a piece, to keep myself afloat and I weren’t wrong to sell them. And when I need to sell the ring, I’ll sell it.” I wasn’t sure about the repetition of information, but my best guess is that Parks tried the book with and without this reinforcement and found that she needed it in order to make the end work. It turns out to be half true. Dill did take the jewelry, but only half of that jewelry was real. There’s a great image at the end of her checking the ring, narrated by Billy, “When we rode back from LaJunta, Dill rode in the truck bed. She didn’t want to drive and she didn’t want to talk. Every once in a while she would take something out of her pocket. She reached up and ran the thing across the back of the truck cab window. It didn’t cut the glass. Teddy and June didn’t see but I seen. It was a diamond-looking ring Dill had. Then I knew Dill had tooked it from Mother and if Dill and tooked that ring then she had tooked the pearls too. Maybe real pearls maybe not real pearls, we never did find no kind of pearls at all, but I wasn’t gonna ask Dill about them while we was riding back home. I wasn’t never gonna ask her.” Amazing image, beautifully done and through action. The reader can see Dill testing the stone in the ring and, from Dill’s earlier chapters, imagine her body language and expression. Parks has laid all of the groundwork and earned every pay off for her conclusion. The reader believes that there are no jewels to be had, and thanks to another setup of the mother’s past behavior sewing valuables into hems, Billy finds the real ring and it’s a surprise, believably executed.

Parks also sets up multiple tensions that I found helpful to study. There is the tension of whether or not Billy will get an abortion, whether it’s too late – the choice of ‘it’ or baby – and how she would cope if she does have the baby. Parks sets up a number of obstacles to Billy getting the treasure: whether the jewels are there, that Dill seems to have them, whether to go dig up the mother, how to get to the gravesite, the reality of looking at the corpse – all very well drawn. It’s utterly believable that Billy’s perspective on life and on her mother would change when she sees the skeletal remains of her mother. Death becomes real and sharpens decisions she makes about her life. There’s the added tension throughout the book of whether or not she is her mother’s daughter. She desperately does not want to be like her mother and yet there are many ways Billy does follow in Willa Mae’s footsteps, even literally as a child in wet sand walking behind her mother. “Once, when me and Billy went to Galveston, we had our shoes off and was walking in the wet sand. Billy walked behind me putting her feet prints where my feets had already made a mark. Good Lord, I thought, my child’s following in my footsteps. But I tried not to worry. The way I see it, you can only dig a hole so deep.”

The novel is funny, wise, and heartbreaking in its sadness. Parks manages to include social commentary through an expertly woven narrative that provides a sense of justice and a satisfying conclusion. The end is not over the top, but a quiet conclusion of the twin realizations of Billy and her uncle, both transformed as they both come face to face with the decay of old ghosts, he with the obliteration of his old church and she with the reality of her mother’s death.