06 May 2011

Sloane Crosley, I Was Told There'd Be Cake and Jennifer Egan, A Visit From the Good Squad: A Study, Perhaps, in Contrast

Title: I Was Told There'd Be Cake
Author: Sloane Crosley
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Date: 2008
Genre: Essays

230 pages.
Where I got it: Paperback Swap
Challenges: 2011 Non-Fiction Challenge

Title: A Visit From The Good Squad
Author: Jennifer Egan
Publisher: Knopf
Date: 2010
Genre: Literary Fiction, Short Story

274 pages.
Where I got it: I bought it, in hardcover no less.
Challenges: Back to the Classics (Pulitzer Winner)

I finished reading Sloane Crosley's collection of essays about a month ago, and just hadn't felt compelled to review it.  I liked it.  I laughed out loud on occasion; I wanted to be friends with Sloane; and, I'm pretty certain there was a point after I graduated from college when I really would have wanted to live her life (especially the working in New York in publishing part).  However, the book just felt like light reading.  I didn't learn anything about myself or life, not that those things are always the goal of reading.  I did find Crosley's style interesting.  Since I teach essay writing, I am always observing  the form that an essayist chooses.  Crosley has a meandering style; she often begins with a clever anecdote, and then winds her way casually towards her purpose, sometimes ending on an open note, leaving the reader pondering how all the pieces of the essay work together.  Certainly the book has a voice; it just didn't happen to be a memorable one for me.

And then next I read Jennifer Egan's remarkable A Visit From the Goon Squad, a fact that may seem unrelated.  Egan's collection of interconnected short stories won the Morning News Tournament of Books, received glowing reviews from tons of bloggers I respect, and then went and won the Pulitzer.  I'm always afraid to read books that are this widely respected.  I'm afraid that I won't get it, and then I'll feel inadequate (I know, so sad right).  However, I was not disappointed by Egan.  And when I was finished, and getting ready to review the book, and looking at Sloane Crosley's book still perched on my desk, I realized that she managed to get at, through fiction, what Crosley never did in her essays (but that I'm sure she was trying to communicate):  What it feels like at moments in our lives when we know that something is changing.  Crosley is writing about the time between adolescence and adulthood, a time when it becomes abundantly clear that things are changing.  She is trying to capture those moments, albeit in a humorous way. And she tells some funny stories that resonate, but Egan manages to enliven the feeling of those moments, and so much more.

The two main players in Egan's book are Benny Salazar, an aging and increasingly irrelevant music executive, and Sasha, his kleptomaniac assistant.  Sasha is the main character in the first story, which is about her propensity for taking that which is not hers,  and which sets the tone for the book as light and comic, with something serious and heavy lurking beneath.  The stories near the beginning and near the end are the strongest, which shows that the book has been smartly edited as well as nearly flawlessly written.  Some of the highlights  include "Forty-Minute Lunch: Kitty Jackson Opens Up About Love, Fame, and Nixon!" a footnoted, journalistic essay, very much in the style of the late David Foster Wallace, the much talked about Power Point chapter entitled "Great Rock and Roll Pauses," which is absolutely brilliant and beautiful in its simplicity, and the mildly dystopic final chapter, which is is as much a philosophical exploration of language as it is a tying up of loose ends from the other histories throughout the book.

It wasn't until the chapter/story entitled, "Good-bye, My Love" that the real emotional impact of the book hit me.  The story is about a young Sasha, who has run away to Naples and her uncle Ted has gone looking for her, but has been distracted by art for most of his trip.  During a conversation with his niece about their personal happiness, Ted begins to ruminate on his relationship with his wife.  The passage reads:

As Ted sat, feeling the evolution of the afternoon, he found himself thinking of Susan.  Not the slightly different version of Susan, but Susan herself- his wife- on a day many years ago, before Ted had begun folding up his desire into the tiny shape it had become.  On a trip to New York, riding the Staten Island Ferry for fun, because neither one of them had ever done it, Susan turned to him suddenly and said, "Let's make sure it's always like this." And so entwined were their thoughts at that point that Ted knew exactly why she'd said it: not because they'd made love that morning or drunk a bottle of Pouilly-Fuisse at lunch -- because she'd felt the passage of time.  And then Ted felt it, too, in the leaping brown water, the scudding boats and wind -- motion, chaos everywhere -- and he'd held Susan's hand and said, "Always.  It will always be like this."

The passage about made me cry, to watch the characters grasp at the moments when time stood still. The passage, like many throughout the book, was touching and real, with just the perfect amount of "writerliness." And that is it. It is this empathetic reading experience and the pleasure of the prose that makes Egan's book work.   The passage of time in the book is the only inevitability, as it is in life. Like an aging rocker in the final chapter finally states, it is time that is the goon.  And when we come to the world of that last chapter, "Pure Language,"  it feels inevitable as well, as if there might not be any other ending.  Where words like "time" have no meaning anymore in the hyper-technologized world that parodies the one we already live in;  where Benny Salazar's new assistant Rebecca...

...was an academic star.  Her new book was on the phenomenon of word casings, a term she'd invented for words that no longer had meaning outside quotation marks.  English was full of these empty words -- "friend" and "real" and "story" and "change" -- words that had been shucked of their meaning and reduced to husks.. Some, like "identity," "search," and "cloud," had clearly been drained of life by their Web usage.  With others, the reasons were more complex; how had "American" become an ironic term?  How had "democracy" come to be used in an arch, mocking way?

And at this juncture, Egan manages some how to be both heartbreaking and metatextual, and to question our assumptions as postmodern readers.  Did we forget that language is a frame for meaning, and that underneath it, maybe meaning exists in moments of feeling?  Maybe a chapter in the form of a Power Point really can contain all the love a sister can have for the brother that only she understands. And then we come to the end, that always already, that inevitability; and I, for one, wanted more.

2 comments:

  1. Best book blog post I've read this week.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Deborah- Thank you so much. What a nice compliment.

    ReplyDelete

I love your comments. Thanks for making me a happy blogger.

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