Lit Crit

Of Novels and Novelty Acts

May 24, 2011

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A generation waiting to be told that they”€™re really living because their hairstyle is real”€”now that’s a lost generation.

Egan explained in an interview that many of A Visit From The Goon Squad‘s characters are in the music industry because “€œin a certain way…music cuts through time like almost nothing else. You know, it makes us feel like we’re back in an earlier moment.”€ Yes, we do know. And music can indeed be used to good effect in literature; Roth wrote a beautiful love scene in Nemesis with “€œI”€™ll Be Seeing You”€ drifting across a Poconos lake, and in Proust, there is Vinteuil and his petite phrase.

Dragging in Marcel P. to talk of Jennifer E. can only beg an unfavorable comparison, but she brought it on herself. To let us know, right off the bat, that she was tackling the subject of time, she opened with two quotations from Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.

According to Jennifer Egan, time is a “€œgoon squad”€ coming “€™round to beat us up. Are we gonna let it? What she has to say about time is that being a teenager is fun and it’s all downhill from there. She also puts a sort of Hollywood spin on the Proustian epiphany, making it not only a realization but an instant transformation. Like the deep voice in the movie previews says, “€œNothing will ever be the same again.”€

Proust attempted no such thing as a description of time, especially not capturing it in the bright bubble of an aphorism. What he did was make descriptions of people in time, sculpting with slow chisel strokes. Egan manufactures lifelike beings by piling on the quirky details. Bennie Salazar sprinkles gold dust in his coffee as an aphrodisiac and sprays pesticide in his armpits”€”truth is stranger than fiction, you can”€™t make that kind of stuff up, how very real.

And the way she knows how to deal with the relations between these quirky characters”€”or “€œhuman interconnectedness”€ as the Guardian calls it”€”is by highlighting the sort of casual link that makes people exclaim, “€œWhat a small world!”€ with ever-renewed amazement, as if the fact that a cousin of a friend went to the same school as their doctor’s daughter somehow proved God’s existence.

An African warrior dancing somewhere in the middle of the book gives rise to a fast-forward one-paragraph account of his descendants so that at the end, when his grandson appears in New York holding another character’s daughter’s hand, “€œclosure is achieved.”€

Hurray for Closure, Queen of Psychobabble! Award-winning authors need closure too, not just teenagers like the ones a professor in another Roth novel is forced to teach:

They open their mouths and they send me up the wall. Their whole language is a summation of the stupidity of the last forty years. Closure! There’s one!…[E]very experience, no matter how ambiguous, no matter how knotty or mysterious, must lend itself to normalizing, conventionalizing, anchorman cliché. Any kid who says “€˜closure”€™ I flunk. They want closure, that’s their closure.

“€œI hope she found a good life,”€ Bennie says of his kleptomaniac assistant Sasha, “€œshe deserves it.”€ In Egan’s world, girls who “€œdeserve”€ a good life get it by being reunited with their first love. What “€œdeserving”€ might mean is not put in question. For that, we”€™d better read Roth.

 

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