Drink, drugs, rock’n’roll

A Visit from the Goon Squad
by Jennifer Egan

This was a book club read that I was happy we picked after having heard about it from all over the place last year.

We all enjoyed reading it and yet had a lot of negative points to raise. I think the problem is that the final chapter lets the rest of the book down, so you leave the book on a sour note and forget that you had enjoyed it up to then.

This book doesn’t have an overarching plot as such, but is rather a series of scenes in the lives of interconnecting characters, from the 1970s through to the near future. Essentially, each chapter takes a minor character from the previous chapter and tells their story, or at least part of it, sometimes completing someone else’s story in the background.

Add in the fact that time is not chronological and that each chapter is written in a different style and you get what could have been a big, dull mess. But it isn’t. Egan’s writing is engaging and she quickly but deftly creates each character such that it can be a jolt to leave their story. For a relatively small book to contain so many lives, what Egan has mostly done is to write them each one detailed scene and then a sketch of the rest of their life.

I did find, especially in earlier chapters, that it was not always clear when a section was set, which was initially frustrating but it always slots together in the end. Similarly I was not always clear who my new narrator/POV character was in relation to previous chapters but I generally figured out.

Egan constantly drops in details that will crop up again later, or that refer obliquely to time, which divided us at book club – it’s fun to spot such things but is it a bit too structured/clever clever?

These are mostly dark characters and stories, with lots of drugs and “lost time”. A lot of the characters are in or want to be in the music industry, and drink and drugs seem to be bound up in that. Some people come back from it but the attitude seemed a bit judgy to me.

But my main bugbear was the vision of future – it was really OTT, especially considering how nuanced rest of book was. Everyone communicates only via text, toddlers control fashions; I mean, really?

As long as you aren’t easily annoyed by slightly trite messages about the journey that makes up a life then I would recommend this as a quick, interesting, well written read.

First published 2010 by Random House. Paperback edition published 2011 by Corsair.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2011.

A tale for winter

And Now You Can Go
by Vendela Vida

I partly picked this because the stylised cover picture looked like a girl walking in the snow and I thought it would fit nicely with my wintry feeling. However, aside from the book starting in December, it was hardly wintry at all. Quite good, though.

Ellis has only recently moved to New York for grad school when she is accosted during a walk in the park by a man with a gun. She manages to escape after quoting poetry in an attempt to change the man’s mood. The book opens with this encounter and goes on to describe the next few months of Ellis learning to deal with what has happened, how it has changed her and how others treat her.

This isn’t the dark story that it might seem from that description. Ellis is funny, terrible with relationships and continually frustrated by everyone else’s expectations of how she should act now that she is officially a victim. Not that this is a comedy either. I really don’t know how to classify it. Maybe as a character piece?

Vida does a good job of collating the various reactions a person might get to the announcement that they’ve been held at gunpoint. There’s the people who suddenly want to hang out with her, the people who want to protect her, the people full of advice. But every one of them is a rounded character as well, fully and fallibly human.

This book challenges preconceptions. Ellis’s attacker is white and politely spoken. His intention is not to rob or rape Ellis. Vida deliberately leads the reader astray, omitting important details until later in the story.

This is definitely a literary novel, in that it’s about the effects of events rather than events themselves, and it picks out interesting little details, but it also has a clear storyline with a decisive beginning and end.

First published in 2003 by Jonathan Cape.

Strangely weird or weirdly strange

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman
by Haruki Murakami
translated from Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Jay Rubin

This is another of those books that I kept in my work drawer for months on end to read in the occasional lunch break, meaning that by the time I came to the end of it I’d forgotten the first half. Thankfully it’s short stories, so that’s not a huge problem, but it is a drawback in writing this review.

This wasn’t my favourite Murakami to date. Though it’s not unusual for a Murakami story to be more of a character sketch with no clear storyline, several of these stories felt a bit…nothing. There were also some beautiful, wonderfully weird stories, to be clear.

The impression I got from the introduction was that this is a compilation of Murakami’s earliest published writing and certainly there is no overarching theme or even the same translator throughout. There is, however, a certain pattern to his work. He takes an ordinary Japanese person and explores an event or relationship of significance to their life. Occasionally a story tries to tell a whole lifetime but that felt too stretched. A number of times he introduces the story third-hand, as if this is about a friend of a friend, like that adds some kind of authenticity. I found this a little weak, detracting from the power that opening lines can have; should have. In one story he tries to explain himself:

“I think things took place pretty much as set out…though I might have forgotten some of the details, I distinctly recall the general tone. When you listen to somebody’s story and then try to reproduce it in writing, the tone’s the main thing. Get the tone right and you have a true story on your hands. Maybe some of the facts aren’t quite correct, but that doesn’t matter…Turn this around, and you could say there are stories that are factually accurate yet aren’t true at all.”

Which might make for an interesting essay but as an interjection in the middle of a story, for me it just drags me out of the story’s world, interrupts the imaginative process of reading.

But as I said, there were some good stories here and lots of good writing. Two stories centre around how a person’s name is their identity, which was interesting. In “Nausea 1979” a man gets a phonecall every evening where an anonymous voice just says his name then hangs up. This has such a profound effect on him, physically and emotionally, that he begins to wonder if he has a psychiatric illness, but the university hospital turns him away. The police also aren’t interested: “there are two kinds of crime the police won’t bother with: crank calls and stolen bicycles” (which certainly rings true to me). Throughout the story the main character is unnamed but the narrator is addressed as Mr Murakami.

In the second story about names, “The Shinagawa monkey”, a woman keeps forgetting her own name. She has no other memory trouble but the name thing becomes such a problem that even having a bracelet made with her name on it doesn’t resolve the problem and she turns to a councillor with unusual methods. This woman is named and we learn a lot about her life and her past as she struggles to understand what is happening.

The other theme that comes up time and again – throughout Murakami’s work, not just here – is music, specifically jazz. He often meditates on the pleasure of finding that rare vinyl recording of a certain combination of musicians, or the reasons why this performance of a certain song is better than that one. If a Murakami character is into music it is invariably jazz, as if there is no other kind.

This is not a wide study of Japanese society. The characters are middle class with good jobs (or savings to live off if they lose their job) or are students at university. When they marry, the women often stop working to keep house for their husbands. And I was a little disappointed that the one time there was a gay character, this was made a big fuss of.

Perhaps I would have enjoyed this more if my reading had been less disjointed. Or perhaps my reading would have been less disjointed if I’d been enjoying it more.

Most of these stories had been previously published in periodicals, including Harpers and McSweeney’s.
This collection first published 2006 by Harvill Secker.

The problem with build-up

Great House
by Nicole Krauss

I loved Krauss’s two previous novels, Man Walks Into a Room and The History of Love. Add in that this book was shortlisted for this year’s Orange Prize and you have some pretty high hopes and expectations. Were they met? Kinda, ish, not really.

This was one of those books that I started…not struggling with, but I wasn’t particularly drawn into it. Krauss creates complex, believable characters with distinct voices and interesting histories and weaves a story that slowly links these disparate people together, but it took a while for me to be hooked. Once I was, though, I was thoroughly hooked and stayed up far too late three nights in a row to get to the end.

Just one more chapter

This isn’t exactly one story, it’s the tale of several lives that are linked by a desk. Yes – a desk. It isn’t entirely clear, when you meet some characters, how they are connected. The stories come together from various angles, usually made more obtuse by having the narrator of that section not really be the person that it’s about. So there’s Nadia, a writer in New York who spends one night with an enigmatic Chilean poet and then never sees him again, though he haunts her whole life. There’s Arthur in London, caring for his dying wife who is losing her memory. There’s Izzy, an American student at Oxford who falls in love with an Israeli who can never be as close to her as he is to his sister.

“Great House” is a term from Jewish history, originally a quote from the Book of Kings. Most of the characters in the novel are Jewish and the action keeps coming back to Jerusalem and also to the Second World War. The timeline is not always clear, though every so often a date is thrown in to the narrative. It takes a while to puzzle out the desk’s journey across the world and it doesn’t help that there are some red herrings along the way. But while figuring out how the characters are linked is a interesting exercise, you could just as easily read this as separate stories because each one is beautifully written and in most cases I was sorry to get to the end and have to switch to a new narrator again.

I do have a couple of gripes. The book takes in a lot of locations and I thought it telling that New York, which is the author’s home, is not really described and yet is completely believable as a location, whereas Oxford is painstakingly detailed in terms of streets walked down and pubs visited and yet did not feel at all real. Similarly Liverpool. And, frankly, Arthur’s leafy London suburb could have been anywhere, though he doesn’t leave home much so that might be unfair. Jerusalem was better-realised though it didn’t completely come to life for me.

My other gripe is that two sections are told by and about characters whose link to the rest is, if I’ve understood it right, so slight that it seems out of place to have given them so much of the book. It does seem like the link might get stronger after the book ends, but that’s just supposition on my part.

Overall, the strength of the characterisation overcomes everything else for me and I like the book but I didn’t love it like her previous novels.

First published in the USA in 2010 by W W Norton.
Paperback edition published 2011.

On a related note, this month’s Radio 4 Book Club was with Nicole Krauss. They were talking about The History of Love but a lot of her answers are also relevant to Great House, particularly one about developing characters’ voices.

What a character

The Book of Other People
edited by Zadie Smith

This book caught my eye on a recent trip to one of Tim’s favourite shops, Forbidden Planet. It’s a collection of short stories written by some pretty big names in the literary world, including Jonathan Safran Foer, Miranda July, Toby Litt, David Mitchell, Vendela Vida and ZZ Packer. They were all commissioned to “make somebody up”, in aid of homelessness charity 826 New York. It’s interesting just to see the many ways that can be interpreted, but it has also resulted in a genuinely very good collection.

The 23 contributions cover a range of ages, characters, backgrounds, storytelling methods (first person, second person, third person, illustrated, comic strip, reliable narration, unreliable narration, linear, nonlinear, etc etc) and even venture beyond humanity in a few cases (“Theo” by Dave Eggers is a very touching story about a giant). There is a certain tendency to white, western, middle-class-ness, which reflects the authors involved, but beyond that the only link is the high-quality of the writing.

Not all of the characters are likeable, in fact those that stuck with me most are decidedly unlikeable. David Mitchell’s “Judith Castle” is first a snob, then increasingly unreliable until I felt so cold toward her that only Mitchell’s wonderful humour could make me want to read about her. AM Homes’s “Cindy Stubenstock” is vomit-inducingly rich, taking a private jet with her equally rich friends to Miami and gossiping about other people, art, how less rich people live. It’s darkly ironically comic.

There are also some very sad stories. “Puppy” by George Saunders was tough for me (Note to Tim: Do Not Read It, trust me.) – the story of a mother taking her children to buy a puppy from a less well-off neighbourhood than their own. The title is a little misleading because it’s not told from the dog’s perspective, but the dog is key.

For me, this book acts as a little snapshot of the writing styles of all sorts of names that I have heard great things about but not yet sampled (I mean, not all of them, I have read novels by six of the contributors, I think, and some of the names were entirely new to me). Though, Zadie Smith does mention in her introduction that she felt the brief gave writers a chance to break free from their usual style or method, if they wanted to, so maybe it’s not the best way to decide if I want to read more by any of them.

I don’t think there were any stories here that I outright disliked and I am having a little trouble choosing a favourite, but I think it has to be “Judge Gladys Parks-Schultz” by Heidi Julavits, about an old woman sat in her study with a book that she isn’t enjoying, reminiscing about her life recent and long past. Julavits uses the language of the mystery novel (good ones, that is) to make this simple evening into a fascinating tale.

Published 2007 by Penguin Books.

Sketches from the edge

After the Quake
by Haruki Murakami
translated from Japanese by Jay Rubin

Murakami’s style is well suited to the short story, being sparse and slightly distant. These stories are character studies, making the most of his ability to briefly sketch a vividly real human being.

This collection might be termed fragments rather than stories because only one feels like a complete story (Super-Frog Saves Tokyo, which was adapted into a stage play shortly after the English publication) but they are all compelling. The stories are linked by an earthquake that none of the characters experienced directly but all are affected by it. The disaster tugs at their darkest thoughts and memories.

Murakami manages to take very ordinary everyday lives and experiences (again excepting Super-Frog Saves Tokyo) and make them strange, mysterious, beautiful in their darkness. He writes as though an over-arching mystery awaits a resolution that will pull all the threads together, but the clues are never followed through to the end. Because there is no ending, characters are left pondering their dark thoughts or just getting on with life, not very far from where we met them.

For me the one blip was Super-Frog Saves Tokyo. It seemed too randomly weird. Murakami is generally pretty good at incorporating surreal elements into his work without them standing out and usually they have a clear purpose. This story – man comes home to find a giant frog telling him that together they must fight the evil worm to stop an earthquake from destroying Tokyo – was not badly written and could be seen as a nightmare or a psychotic episode or as a metaphor or just plain old surrealism, but for me it just doesn’t work. It jarred.

However, overall this was another great book from Murakami and I continue to rate him highly.

Published in the UK 2003 by Vintage
ISBN: 978-0-0994-4856-3