Monday, 29 August 2011

Book #73 A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

A Visit From The Goon Squad

Recently published in paperback in June, A Visit From The Goon Squad begged the question of me 'When is a novel, not a novel?" because it is a novel, and it isn't. It reminded me of a game of tag, or a relay race. The novel opens with a chapter focusing on Sasha, jumps from Sasha to her boss Bennie, then from Bennie to Rhea, who knew Lou through Jocelyn, then to Lou's children and then to Jocelyn and then from Jocelyn to Scotty, who also knows Bennie, to Bennie's wife Stephanie, and so on and so forth. Each character only gets a single chapter but through their connection to each other act like pieces in a jigsaw to build up a portrait of music producer Bennie and his assistant Sasha, to whom every character is somehow linked, if not to each other.

It is very well done, and I liked it. Not only does it jump from character to character, Egan treats time in a non-linear way, so, often, when it leaps to the next character, it also leaps in time, and is a bit like a bouncing ball. Rhea's chapter for example covers the time period when she and Bennie were teenagers, her best friend Jocelyn is sleeping with a man named Lou.  Then we go on safari with Lou and his children, Jocelyn is in the past and he has a new girlfriend. Then we bounce again and Rhea and Jocelyn are visiting Lou on his deathbed before throwing the ball on to the next person.

Though it is set against the backdrop of the music industry and to a degree media and showbusiness, that wasn't really what interested me, it is, essentially 13 interconnected short stories, I enjoyed the way in which it became character rather than story led. Some stories are better than others, I liked Dolly's and Stephanie's section Rhea's Sasha's and Ted's. But, occasionally I found parts of it flashy and hollow like the world in which it is set. Though the final story brings the novel full circle, I was annoyed by both it and the previous chapter which takes place as a series of Powerpoint slides, which proved to be difficult to read on Kindle for iPad.

Despite the strangeness of form of the chapter however there was a lot expressed in a small amount of writing, a father struggling to connect with his borderline autistic son, a mother haunted by her past and a little girl observing it all. Overall, it is very accomplished as a piece of work, and I was absorbed by the 'Who next? When next?' angle.

I wondered why it was called 'A Visit From The Goon Squad' and I had to look "Goon Squad" up basically it means "gang of thugs"  and in the novel, two characters say "Time's a goon". The feeling Egan has put into words is that moment when the realisation of the passage of time jumps up and smacks you in the face and you wonder how you got to where you are, be it suddenly old or leading a life terribly distant from the one you expected to lead or once led. Stephanie, particularly is a good example of this, a former drug using punk with tattoos and rings suddenly finding herself a professional career woman playing tennis with Republicans in a country club and wondering how the hell she came to be there. It's also about the connections we lose, keep and renew and how sometimes, another person can be the architect of your story. And Egan has put this into words well, and in a way having just turned 30, I can appreciate. The music scene aspect is almost incidental, its all about well life, really, and how sections of time, become your story. I would recommend it, the more I think about it the cleverer it gets, but, it's proven to be a very Marmite book in Amazon reviews so I would tell anyone interested to bear in mind that this book largely dispenses with the traditional style of the novel. If you can get over that and take it as a character led piece about time and change and relationships, you may just enjoy it. 8/10

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Book #72 Legend Of A Suicide by David Vann

Legend Of A Suicide

I'd read a lot of buzz about Legend Of A Suicide prior to reading it, and then fell across it in a second hand bookshop in Camden last weekend. I have a belief in the synchronicity of chance, and, for a book that you intend to read to appear in a second hand shop you happen to visit, makes it seem like its "there for you". Like you're supposed to read it somehow.

There's a lot to be said about 'Legend Of A Suicide'. Not really a novel, more 4 vignettes with a novella in the middle, it is initially difficult to engage with, and is definitely an experiment in form and storytelling, even at the end Roy and his father Jim maintain a kind of impenetrable mystique as characters. The bulk of the story concerns Roy going to live with his father in a remote corner of Alaska, in a kind of survivalist scenario whereby they live self-sufficiently without contact with the outside world.  The beating heart of this story is the crushing weight of responsibility and burden of guilt on Roy, who suddenly finds himself pretty much a caretaker to his increasingly unstable and unpredictable father. The prose has good descriptive passages bleak, stark, conveying well the oppressive solitude of their location and forced togetherness. It reminded me both of Paul Theroux's Mosquito Coast and Barbara Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible, two other novels concerning fathers who drag their children into ill advised and dangerous territory to suit their own ideals and needs. The scene in which Roy's father begins to relate intimate details of his sex life to his child makes you squirm for the terrible predicament Roy has been placed in and wonder why on earth his mother let him go there. 

I don't want to spoil anything for anyone who might read the book after reading this review and so I can only say, that after I had presumed I knew exactly where this novel was taking me in all respects I had my mind officially blown by this novel in the middle third. What really makes this novel an experience is the knowledge that David Vann's father committed suicide in real life, and as you read this fictionalized story you realize you are reading Vann's "dark night of the soul" laid bare. It is incredibly courageous of him to bring this story to paper, was no doubt hugely difficult to write and whilst doubtless cathartic he has allowed every person who reads this to truly see the inner workings of his psychological reaction, not through fact, "this is what happened and this is how I felt" but subtly, through fictionalised prose. It is no Dave Pelzer or similar story of "my terrible childhood" which populate the shelves of every supermarket. You grieve and ache for Vann, because you realise through your own thought process without being instructed why he is telling you this other story, the place that it has come from within him. It's art, really.

Which isn't to say it is flawless, there are ways that I feel it let itself down, it could be dull in parts and its really all about the middle third with the writing either side lacking the same quality or punch, though the end has some nice lines. It is however totally worth reading for the excellent Sukkwan Island section which has so much to say about so many important things, fatherhood, despair, revenge, legacy, psychology and anger and is both an important addition to literature on the topic and through its experimental style to literature as a whole.  9/10

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Book #71 The Woman In Black by Susan Hill

The Woman In Black

One Christmas, the stepchildren of Arthur Kipps begin telling ghost stories for fun, and are shocked when their normally benign stepfather loses his temper and goes out into the night. Arthur, it turns out has his own ghost story, and a true one at that, which he begins to relate in the first person to the reader.

As a young solicitor Arthur was sent to close the estate of a woman who died without family in an isolated house in the marshes. Whilst there he begins seeing visions of a mysterious woman in black and experiences other supernatural occurrences, that leave him altered forever.

Sadly, I had several problems with the book, although period pieces are exactly my thing whether they be written in the past as in Dickens or a modern attempt to write a novel in that style such as Susannah Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell; this novel felt affected, like an attempt at a period tone rather than believable as an actual period novel. A pastiche. For a ghost story I was not particularly scared and as a result of being a short novel it lacked much in the way of incident ghostly or otherwise.

Though the story of the Woman In Black when explained and played out is very sad, it is hard to see why she would harbour a vendetta against either the town or Arthur. The ending is actually bizarre, in many ways it is the novels big reveal, following the opening but once the final event is described the novel ends immediately, abruptly, badly. Almost as if a schoolchild had done it and hadn't known how to conclude the story once all the events had been told. It ends something like "There you are, thats my story" It's weird.

The novel has recently been adapted for the screen and will feature Daniel Radcliffe in the lead, the trailer coincidentally was released today, in contrast to the book, the film seems genuinely creepy and I think this could be one of the occasions whereby the film may prove more enjoyable than the source material it came from. 6/10 

Book #70 White Oleander by Janet Fitch

White Oleander

Late one night some years ago, I left the TV on and the film adaptation of Janet Fitch's White Oleander starring Michelle Pfeiffer came on. I initially thought 'I'll get up and switch that off in a minute' only to find myself oddly transfixed and absorbed by it. I meant to read the book and then kept remembering and forgetting its existence as is sometimes the way with these things.

I then thought I'd buy it on my Kindle, only to find no Kindle edition, and then by happenstance saw it whilst in the Oxfam bookshop, and felt like it was 'there for me'. I have to say I'm starting to fall in love a bit with getting books from Charity Shops. I've come across loads of bargains lately, and when you consider the price of books now, it is worth digging.

I've been struggling with my reading this month, White Oleander is the first entry for August. It hasn't helped that I opened up a complete box set of The West Wing. I was ahead of myself in the challenge anyway so I'm hoping that a bit of a break won't do me any harm, I was reading at a ferocious pace and kind of burnt out a bit I think. White Oleander, a past choice for Oprah's Book Club, somehow struck just the right tone to get me back 'into it.'

The books protagonist is twelve year old Astrid Magnusson, her mother is Ingrid Magnusson. Ingrid is a self absorbed, imperious, narcissistic poet with an odd set of rules as to what makes any person she comes across 'a person of value'. She simultaneously neglects and controls Astrid, forgetting she exists most of the time and then attempting to mould her at others. Astrid lives in her shadow but also in a bizarre communion with her. Suddenly, the true extent of Ingrid's emotional imbalance is revealed when she kills her ex boyfriend Barry for having the temerity to reject her and is sent to prison.

The bulk of the novel now begins and concerns Astrid's journey through the care system, traipsing through a succession of foster homes and schools. Most of the placements are shockingly unsuitable and Astrid who has never really been allowed her own personality, has to try and be someone else for each new family. Though Ingrid is incarcerated, her ability to psychologically bully Astrid and manipulate her from afar continues. Ingrid is truly a chilling villain, not over-written so as to become pantomime but written in such a way as to make you feel she is truly a sociopath, without regard for others. Even from her prison cell she continues to damage Astrid whilst claiming to care for her, and, to manipulate the world at large into seeing her as the victim. She is a truly intriguing character.

The blurb on the back calls the book hypnotic and I have to lend my voice in agreement to that. It has a really lyrical quality and it engaged me from the outset. It is often grim, and frequently depressing but not in a way that makes you despair of it. You are interested enough in the character outcomes to continue.  There is some excellent dialogue too.  I also liked that the conclusion was open ended, will Astrid finally physically and psychologically break free from Ingrid, or will she again succumb to the machinations of the puppet master? 7/10