Reading: Jennifer Egan “The Keep”, “A Visit from the Goon Squad”

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 Something less trivial for a change: Jennifer Egan, whom I just recently discovered thanks to wonderguy, who gave me A Visit from the Goon Squad to read. He thought I might like it because I love short stories and he was right. Though of course, it’s not a collection of short stories in the traditional understanding. I read in one review that Egan herself does not like to categorize this book, even though a lot of readers feel the need to know for sure – have the author tell them, so to say – whether they are reading a ‘novel’ or a ‘short story collection’. Tim O’Brien’s The Things they carried is another one of these works that often resist a clear categorization, yet it tells a completely different story.

I love books like A Visit from the Goon Squad, even though they are challenging for me because I am awful at remembering names and those collections of different life stories that work together to tell a wide-ranging story mainly work with a likewise extensive cast. So while I’m all for diving into the lives and stories of different people I’m also all about forgetting their ties to the story and why I’m reading about them because I can’t remember who is who. Egan lets those various chapters and stories dance with each other, like a well choreographed and fluent harmony of moves and interactions, so as to paint a giant picture of different lives that crossed and at times clashed with each other. With some protagonists one may think “well, he/she definitely got what he/she deserved”, not necessarily in a positive way (I will not give away names, because I don’t want to spoil all the fun; also, I can’t remember the names that well…). Then again, the fate of others may take you by complete surprise, as literature should do [maybe not all and not all the time, but you may get the picture). Long story short: A Visit from the Goon Squad is a harmonious composition of life stories that are anything but harmonious, glorious or even positive (in some cases), arranged in a versatile, diverse, and, in some instances, rather unusual tone and style. With  helluvalot of names…

After finishing A Visit from the Goon Squad I knew I had to read more Egan and I decided to go for The Keep next. What starts out as a seemingly ordinary tale of a guy who had to get away from his life for undisclosed reasons turns out to be a much more complex and polyphonic tale about life and what we make of it. Here too, people meet and get know each other, some for better, some for worse, and a surprising twist brings together two (and even more) storylines that initially don’t seem to have any connection at all. There are some  main features of the protagonists who seem familiar in one way or the other, not only in Egan’s writing; failed lives, losers, who don’t want to acknowledge or have not yet realized that their sole accomplishment in life is that they are still alive and breathing. Even though they hardly recognize it themselves, Egan’s failed lives indeed sound like failures; contrary to Willy Vlautin’s ‘losers’ (of whom I will write in another post), they are not lost, trying to fight their way back, but they DO lose, actively participating in their own downfall, and in some cases, fighting their way back, too. Of course, Egan does not limit her scope of characters to people fighting their own happiness; there’s the guy who overcame a deeply traumatic experience only to relive it once again; the mysterious countess who makes being a member of old German nobility seem like being a member of the A-Team (sans B.A.’s jewellery, of course, yet with much more insanity than Howling Mad Murdock); a protagonist who seems to be the epitome of the euphemism “professional teenager”; and a teacher who is overly committed for some unusual and unforeseen reasons. (Oh my, see, I spoiler! Though only because the cast of The Keep is more manageable than in A Visit from the Goon Squad).

As with a lot of other authors, I appreciate Egan’s voice, I can ‘hear her talk to me’ – or worse, I can ‘feel’ her voice -, to sound a bit corny. Not every voice is equally intense and captivating, since we all have different interests and characters. Sure enough, this is no special feature of the author, but rather just an ordinary question of personal likes and interests. So go, read Egan. Delve into stories that are intertwined and autonomous at the same time, life paths that run alongside each other, meet, divert, cross, and sometimes even clash, only to part and sometimes even reunite again.

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