A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Short story collections don’t sell. You’d think that they would– if we’re to believe what people keep saying about the shrinking attention span of American readership.

So I started watching The Wire now that my friend is loaning me the DVDs, and while it took a while to get going, it’s living up to its reputation, without question.

Where was I? Right, so the question is, what do you do in this business if you’re a better short story writer than a novelist?

This cover is a stylized depiction of every drama teacher I've ever had.

You don’t need to change much, actually. You can turn a short story collection into a novel by taking a character in one piece and… ahhh, let’s say… making her the daughter of some other character’s boss from another. BAM–continuity! I’d like to think you don’t need to do that to win the Pulitzer Prize, but Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad and Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, both short-story-collections-as-novels, are the last two books to take the award for fiction. So maybe it helps.

I can tell you which one’s the better book, and it’s the one where the connections between the stories and characters are actually weaker.

A Visit From the Goon Squad is thirteen stories, most of which take place in New York and involve a whole nexus of characters. Arguably at the center of this nexus are former punk rocker Bennie Salazar– who met with success as a record producer but is struggling to break his obsession with the past– and Sasha, his assistant, a kleptomaniacal beauty with a checkered past (who is more influential to the other characters than her actual character seems to justify).

Half the connections among the characters feel unnatural, especially since we’re operating within a very large population and span of time. You could argue that the continuity is thematic. They’re all about the shared experiences of music, right? And time?

But my favorite story here, “Selling the General,” actually has nothing to do with either. In it, Dolly, the former queen of celebrity public relations is making a comeback by taking on the account of a genocidal dictator who, as one readily understands, is in great need of a PR consultant. Dolly convinces a Hollywood starlet to pose with the general to boost his appeal and dampen the indictment of his crimes against humanity, and the shoot goes terribly awry. On the surface, the story is a light, farcical send-up of the power of image and the media. But when you consider the starlet’s complicated motives and the reactions of Dolly’s scary little daughter, the story plunges into the realm of disturbing.

It’s brilliant.

Plenty of good stories here will go unmentioned, including a cute and surprisingly effective little number that’s written entirely in Powerpoint slides.

The other favorite of mine is the last piece, “Pure Language,” which to me reads like dystopian literature. The thing is a marvel– considering that it’s harder, in some ways, to convincingly predict what the world will be like in ten years than in fifty. Its plot marks the heavily orchestrated comeback of punk rocker Scotty Hausman, a derelict soloist who in 2021 spends his days fishing in the East River. And thanks to an army of bloggers paid to hype him up, thousands of New Yorkers gather to see a guy sit down and play a slide guitar. The crowd comes away lauding the stripped-down performance for being “pure.” But the event was constructed by a manufactured campaign of liars. Does that inauthentic gathering make the music, the experience less authentic? Like with Woodstock, “it may be that the crowd at a particular moment in history creates the object to justify its gathering.”

It’s brilliant.

Last year this book pulled the upset on the media’s million dollar baby Jonathan Franzen and his Freedom for the Pulitzer and the National Book Award. While I really liked Freedom, Egan’s is the more deserving book. Both carry the “This is Us, America!” presumption that makes the award panelists go hard, but Goon Squad is perhaps more cerebral while being more widely appealing. Awards don’t guarantee an obscure author a lasting audience, but here’s hoping it does in this case.

Who’s Killing the English Major?

English professors, in general, could never write. So long as they were only writing to each other, of course. Furiously gesturing in their kabuki play of academese, they fling words like “intertextuality” and “signifier/signified,” which, if you do not accept their use, you are not part of the club and should suffer the due condescension.

If you want to see Exhibit A, according to Joseph Epstein of The Wall Street Journal, look at the new Cambridge History of the American Novel

This book sounds howlingly awful– a 1200-page professorial circle jerk of which the out-of-touch authors dare you to follow a single paragraph. They’re taking the history of the American novel, something for you and me, and implying that it isn’t for us just in how it’s written. I feel no less indignant about this than Epstein does.

Now, the observation that English instructors typically churn out unreadable cinderblocks– thick while being hollow– is not new. Also not new is Epstein’s argument, for which this Cambridge book serves as his evidence: the study of literature for the enrichment and enjoyment thereof has been commandeered by the liberal majority of academics administering art as social medicine– “automatic leftism” being “the reigning ethos of the current-day English Department.” Read Eskimo feminist poetry, says your typical English prof today, It’s good for you. It doesn’t matter if it’s even good.

Really, in universities, this is the enduring conflict of the past couple of generations. Liberals bemoan the Harold Bloom-ian old guard as elitists who like their canon white and male and unchanging, and conservatives bewail the takeover of all the P.C. post-posties who insist that diversity in art is synonymous with quality.

I’m fascinated by Epstein’s essay. It contains so many double standards that reading it is like walking a hall of mirrors.

English programs, in terms of respectability and popularity, are in serious decay, and Epstein says that it all started once contemporary novels were being taught in college (The reader is to agree that contemporary=terrible or else, my goodness, we’ve lost him already!). Epstein writes:

“With the gates once carefully guarded by the centurions of high culture now flung open, the barbarians flooded in, and it is they who are running the joint today.”

The barbarians he names are Kurt Vonnegut, E.L Doctorow, and Allen Ginsberg. Granted, I only like 33% of those guys, but it’s curious to see Epstein criticizing the inaccessibility of the Cambridge authors’ book, then pining for the sentinels of taste from the days of yore who slammed the doors on the unwashed contemporary novelists. He likes the gate but loathes the current gatekeepers.

But wait. I think we’ve left something in this discussion dangerously ignored…

The “Good Books?”

Inevitably we get into the question of what the “good books” are that should be taught, but look down at your feet: we’re in the shit now.

So before we ruin our Crocs forever, let me make a statement. Plenty of lousy books are taught today because they are merely culturally diverse. Just like plenty of lousy books are taught today because they always have been; they’re labeled to be “surviving” or “enduring” as opposed to merely “old.”

Has the liberal professor properly evaluated the Eskimo feminist poetry collection for artistic merit and enjoyability before adding it to the syllabus? Has the conservative professor re-evaluated The Last of the Mohicans lately for the same thing before including it yet again?

No matter which side you take, you are assigning many works for some purpose besides quality. Maybe you don’t like Beowulf (I do, but that’s neither here nor there), but it’s being taught because we’re going to learn about the early Anglo-Saxons, goddammit. Or you don’t like The House of Spirits, but you know what, we’re going to learn about Latin-American political history, goddammit.

The point is, you are much more likely to perceive an agenda behind the curriculum if you don’t enjoy the books. And that agenda, you will usually conclude, is a misguided one.

Oh, God, This Has Gotten Political

I like to think that professors and thinkers belonging to both camps first got into literary study from a shared passion for the written word, not because it was an instrument for social change or the reinforcement of traditional values (though those are usually secondary objectives that educators pick up along the way). The Book was the thing.

Epstein would have you believe that he is on the side of the angels, that his is the argument championing The Book, and the agenda-driven academics running the show are the killjoys constraining its value to whatever it says about race, class, or gender. I don’t think his opposition would see it that way. For many of the more liberal professors, enjoyment of The Book may very well be the fact it presents a minority perspective, or questions tradition, or is just plain different. Maybe the fact it is written by Eskimo women is why they love it.

Regardless, they’re teaching the book in relation to other interests, which Epstein sees as folly.

What departments have done instead is dismember the curriculum, drift away from the notion that historical chronology is important, and substitute for the books themselves a scattered array of secondary considerations (identity studies, abstruse theory, sexuality, film and popular culture). In so doing, they have distanced themselves from the young people interested in good books.

What he sees as the dilution of a study is in reality, at least by intention, a multi-faceted campaign to take books and discuss their connection to the world around us. I think we’re all aware of the stigma that English majors battle on a regular basis, which is that their field of interest is woefully inapplicable to real life (and this battle they regularly lose). This context-based approach that works to emphasize the relevance of literature–be it to pop culture, sexuality, politics, globalization, etc.– is a response to the larger student concern.

Does this show a lack of faith in the timelessness and appeal of great books themselves to fill the class rosters? That’s a valid criticism. But it isn’t the touchy-feely interdisciplinary shift in the curriculum that’s been killing the popularity of the English program. It’s the world, for God’s sake. What Epstein is fingering as the gunman is really the bumbling EMT who arrived on the scene to administer the shock paddles in the wrong place.

Booktrack: I Can Hear You Reading Over There

I recoil at this like I do most innovations that seek to improve “the reading experience.” The nose upturns by reflex: I don’t need an orchestral score to enjoy my books, thank you very much. 

But the presumption isn’t that it’s needed, but that it might make some books a little more fun.

Booktrack is a New York start-up that’s begun selling downloadable ebooks with original soundtracks complete with music, ambient noise, and contextual sound effects. You figured somebody was going to do this eventually, and the question was how good it would be once they did.

To its credit, Booktrack seems to acknowledge that readers are fussy. Maybe you like the ambient ocean waves but find the music distracting: lower the volume on the music or simply mute it. If you want to reread a previous line, you tap it, and the soundtrack snaps back to that point.

Watching the preview on their web site, I think Booktrack has anticipated all my misgivings on the very concept. Almost every addition you could possibly dislike, you can adjust or turn off — even the little dot sliding down the margin that predicts your adjusted reading speed (in order to sync up the music).

The interface looks good. The only question is, well, the quality of the soundtrack.

On the Sherlock Holmes preview, the swelling music and the ambient drumming raindrops were fine, but the sound effects, like the thudding footsteps and the lady’s wail, are in Royalty-Free Soundz territory. Just think of all the Wilhelm Screams these things will have.

Another preview showed an excerpt of Jay McInerny’s Bright Lights, Big City describing an 80’s club scene, wherein the line, “Your brain is composed of a brigade of Bolivian soldiers marching through the night,” is accompanied by the actual clomping of marching soldiers (this with Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” in the background).

Are the sounds all going to be this literal? Awesome! Then maybe the Booktrack rendition of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” will begin like this:

It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain [door creaking open, then shutting]; but once conceived, it haunted me day and night [“Oooooo! Ooo-OOO-oooo!”]. Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man [a big wet SMOOCH]. He had never done me wrong.

(This with Wham!’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” in the background)

So they’re working the teen angle, what with the one new book at launch being the sequel to I Am Number Four,  The Power of Six by Pittacus Lore (a.k.a. James Frey).

It’s the right target market: first, this technology would seem especially appealing to younger readers, and second, the fastest and cheapest way to build Booktrack’s library would be through focusing not on new books, but rather public domains like Pride and Prejudice and Huck Finn — classics that happen to be on the assigned reading lists of millions of students.

If the execution’s there, I can imagine Booktracks becoming an influential player in publishing, maybe even spawning imitators. But if the quality’s off, then reading one of these noisy books will just be embarrassing. It remains to be seen, I suppose.

Until then, what best enhances my reading experience is, and will continue to be, a quiet porch and a rum and coke. And Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Something.'”

Borders

Just around the corner from my apartment stood two bookstores. Soon, there’ll just be one.

A Barnes & Noble and a Borders actually faced each other on opposite sides of my street for more than a decade. I worked at the B&N for three years. Especially because of the location, customers assumed that a sort of animosity existed between the stores. “You don’t have [insert book title]?” we’d sometimes hear. “Well, I’ll just go across the street to Borders!” They’d forget that the competitive drive is mostly lost on a floor-level employee who isn’t paid commission. Besides, we don’t mind Borders. It’s a bookstore like us, for crying out loud.

We would talk about each new development in the Borders bankruptcy saga and shake our heads. Nobody wanted to see another bookstore disappearing. Not even our management, really: while store sales would increase, it would be a morbid reminder of an unnerving trend.

Granted, that particular Borders was never my bookstore of choice. It’s being located in the mall made its clientele naturally more annoying. Also, it presented itself as more of a media retailer, so in spite of being the second largest bookselling chain in America, it never truly felt like a bookstore to me. So even before I scanned and shelved hardcovers for its competitor across the street, I rarely shopped there.

But with it closing, and me needing the third George R.R. Martin novel, I went to have a look and pay my respects. This weekend Borders was in its 25-to-50%-off throes of liquidation, teeming with customers with only a handful of employees still on the payroll to attend to them. Walking the aisles and squeezing past other shoppers, I couldn’t help feeling like a carrion feeder. I avoided eye contact with the few Borders booksellers left, people who I knew were being cast into a persistently shitty Colorado Springs job market. A few of these employees will get jobs at the Barnes & Noble across the street just in time for the seasonal hiring blip. Many of my B&N coworkers were themselves picked up from McKinzey-White, B. Dalton, and other small bookstores that folded in the area years ago.

McKinzey-White! Come to think of it, my neighborhood used to have three bookstores. Now, even if you count the large used shops, there are only four bookstores in this entire city of over half-a-million people.

Ten years ago, it was ridiculous to think that shopping at a Barnes & Noble — a carnivorous corporate behemoth viewed to glut itself en masse on Mom n’ Pop bookshops — would feel like supporting your neighborhood bookstore. It’s come to that. The digital reading age is of course eliminating the need of the brick-and-mortar store for all but the traditionalists: people who feel an irreplaceable sense of satisfaction when wandering aisles filled with promising volumes that they can tilt down, flip open, peruse, and carry with them to a table to read. But it’s impractical for the existing bookstores to keep the inventory they had before the e-book revolution. The biggies will inevitably downsize, for most of their product is now, well, incorporeal, and it’ll be unnecessary to pay rent and utilities for the same large building spaces as before. Even if a giant like Barnes & Noble continues to grow as a company, the stores themselves will eventually condense into more boutique-style shops over time. In that sense, chains like B&N and Books-A-Million will feel more like homey little bookshops than you ever expected, and yes, there can only be fewer of them.

This is the natural progression of things, I thought while staring at what was left on the Borders shelves. No Storm of Swords — not a copy of Martin there to be found. The atmosphere was overwhelming me, and I left quickly. Until I finally buy an eBook reader, I’m going to have to get used to leaving bookstores empty-handed.

And now, without Borders, many neighborhoods will now no longer have a bookstore.

Guys Reading Girls

You could argue that I typically don’t. (Pssh! Typical guy!) Looking at my Books Reviewed page is telling in this regard.

Books I reviewed: 55

Books I reviewed that were by women: 10

Books by women that I highly recommended: 2

So maybe you’d find it hypocritical of me to praise the existence of this list I found, but here it is:

250 Books By Women All Men Should Read

This was compiled by Joyland in response to Esquire’s recently re-posted “75 Books Every Man Should Read”, which drew some ire because it has fewer chicks than a Star Wars movie. According to Joyland“The problem was that the list was all male writers, save for lone lady Flannery O’Connor. This really does imply that men don’t/can’t/shouldn’t read women and we were pretty sure that wasn’t the case among readers.”

1 woman out of 75 writers! Bet my ratio looks much less piggish now. You can practically hear Esquire smashing Miller Lite cans against its forehead.

Naturally, I find Joyland’s list a lot more interesting, and it contains more authors that I haven’t already read. Ironically, though, their list actually includes… a couple guys (apparently since David B. Feinberg and Christopher Isherwood were gay, they count as women). Since it’s compiled of several people’s suggestions, some books appear multiple times, like Middlemarch and Beloved. And there’s more representation by actual male contributors than I expected.

This gets one thinking about one’s own contribution to said list, being a gentleman who has certainly enjoyed his share of literary works by ladies. I’ll name here my five best female-written books for dudes to read–a couple of which I think are actually better enjoyed by dudes.

Regeneration by Pat Barker

Depending on the day, this is my all-time favorite novel. Regeneration’s brilliance shines on nearly every aspect of masculinity in the face of war, including generational strife between sons and fathers, the reality of bravery and heroism, and insomnia-inducing moral conundrums. The third book in this trilogy (The Ghost Road) is the one that got the Booker, but the first installment is #1 with me.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

One of the manliest books I read last year– in the way I’ve always thought The Prince to be a manly book. It could be read as a political survival tale in Henry VIII’s England: a time where anyone can die any way for any reason. Cromwell takes care of shit.

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

I tease the death- and flower-obsessed Woolf sometimes, but the God’s honest is I truly enjoyed this one. And like Regeneration, a large part of it concerns the horror of the Great War: through Septimus Smith, Woolf showed infinitely more understanding of shellshocked war veterans than the male experts of her time.

The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

May well be the best psychological thriller I’ve ever read.

A Lost Lady by Willa Cather

I haven’t read a Cather that I wouldn’t recommend to a dude (don’t let this cover mislead you, though). Her writing has an irresistible quality on its own, but what lodges these books in my memory is her ability to write from the perspective of a boy in love. I almost put My Antonia here: I’m not sure if I’d like it quite as much on a reread, but I do know I’ll always love the more vibrant A Lost Lady.

And when you’re done with those, read some Emily Dickinson and Dorothy Parker and Agatha Christie and then come back when you need more suggestions.

As for myself, I’ll be getting to some Edith Wharton real soon, bro, after I do some pullups and go drive a tractor.

The Rapture: Time Enough At Last

Maybe now is too late to get my act together for the Rapture this Saturday. I mean, it really snuck up on me.

But it’s not that I haven’t tried. This week I’ve not only picked up after Connor when taking him out for a walk, but I would also dispose of another dog’s leavings if neglected nearby. Anything that may earn me some extra points in the humanity column, because I may be at the cutoff point for all I know. But more than likely I don’t fit the vital salvation criteria, so Judgment it is.

That’s not all bad. Christian authors particularly sympathetic to those who will be left behind have published some indispensable resources for surviving the Tribulation. “Surviving” being perhaps an odd term to use here, but hey!

First there’s Jeffrey Harbin’s Post-Rapture Survival Guide. According to the copy, this volume “started out as just a letter written for several of his non-believing friends” to help them avoid the awesome spectacle of earthly Apocalypse.

It may be too late for this book to be applicable to me, because in spite of its title, it sounds more like a game plan for catching the next train to the Pearly Gates and less like a handbook for romping in the pestilential hellscape thereafter, and I’m in need of the latter. If I had my druthers, there would be an end times version of How to Shit in the Woods.

Maybe Valerie A. Beachene’s Red Camo: Ultimate Survival Post Rapture Handbook is the ticket.

I was first drawn to Survival Post Rapture Handbook Ultimate because of its provocative jacket design, which depicts a military chopper nuking a gigantic Bible. This one needless to say has captured my imagination. “The scent of fire, brimstone and sulfur are in the air. I can almost hear the hoof beats off in the distance and can picture the flaring nostrils of that first white horse.” Hell, yes! But going off appearances, I’m apprehensive of ordering Rapture Survival Ultimate Handbook Post on the possibility it may be all flash and zazz, and not the collection of practical survival measures I’m looking for. What I need to know is, when I behold the White Horse, should I board up my apartment or go out and try to lasso it? Could one befriend Pestilence? Does it like apples?

I could of course look to find some truth in fiction by reading the Left Behind series. Maybe you’ve only seen the film, and therefore assume that in case the worst happens at least Kirk Cameron will be there to help, but forget it: real-life Kirk’s goin’ up to the spirit in the sky.

This last example, How to Profit From the Coming Rapture by Steve and Evie Levy, is suspect in that it perhaps isn’t taking the end times very seriously. “Sure,” says the book’s synopsis, “the rivers and seas will run with blood, locusts will swarm, mountains will move all over the place, and famine will strike. But for the five billion of us left behind, the post-Rapture world will be a time of even more unique investment opportunities.” 

But satire or no, I think they’re onto something. The aspect of financial survival will deserve some attention. For one, the market will certainly become more volatile once the Antichrist comes to power.

If this weekend goes as prophesied, northern Colorado Springs is going to be a quiet, lonely place. I’ll need to take advantage of that: it’ll be hard to do much reading once all those annoying locusts come buzzing around.

Don’t Publish This– I’m Dead

Something bothered me when I read Dead Souls. Or more specifically, the latter part: Volume II had me thinking, “What the hell is this?” Missing chapters, fragmented sentences, characters developed to acute familiarity and then never seen again. What existed on the page was the most boring kind of randomness I’d ever encountered.

Of course, this was all explained in the novel’s introduction. Volume II was an unfinished sequel that Nikolai Gogol labored over for the better part of a decade and burned, yes, burned. Twice. But contrary to its placement in the printed book, you’re only supposed to read the introduction after finishing the novel, aren’t you? (1. Spoilers 2. Critical interpretations of the overarching themes that mean jack to you until you’ve digested the thing yourself) But the point is, had I known the situation behind Dead Souls 2: Electric Boogaloo, I would not have read it. I’d have shut Dead Souls as Gogol clearly would have had me do, rather than allow me to associate him with his vastly inferior incomplete work.

I think.

There are famous novels that go unfinished upon the death of their authors. I’ll always remember having to close F. Scott Fitzgerald’s heartbreakingly silenced The Love of the Last Tycoon. It was a sparkling road that suddenly ended at a windy cliff. I’m thinking of picking up David Foster Wallace’s recently released The Pale King, but I don’t want to see that cliff again. It’s cold there.

The other concern with these posthumous releases is, even if they were more-or-less completed manuscripts, did these authors ever want them published to begin with?

Hemingway. Hemingway said don’t you bastards ever, ever publish A Moveable Feast, or my ghost will come and hang you on a hook like a prize marlin.

Finished or unfinished, posthumous publications are more prevalent than one thinks. Some people don’t like to read them out of respect for the author, based on the principle that they screw with his/her legacy. Well, if you share that concern, you probably shouldn’t read…

-Anything by Kafka

-Most anything by Dickinson

Austen’s Northanger Abbey, Persuasion, or Lady Susan

Machiavelli’s The Prince

Nietzsche’s The Will to Power

Virgil’s Aeneid

Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales

The Diary of Anne Frank

Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood

Poe’s “Annabel Lee”

Fleming’s Octopussy, The Man with the Golden Gun, and The Living Daylights

-A lot of shit by Bukowski

Vonnegut’s Armageddon in Retrospect and Look at the Birdie

(from a more comprehensive list on Wikipedia)

So that being considered, does the fact that the book you’re reading was say, left unauthorized by death, change the way you feel about it? Would you rather it weren’t published at all?

Let’s ponder that while I put on some Tupac.