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.

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Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

To me these people are Amish, so to make Olive Kitteridge endearing would be no small feat. Small-town USA, particularly northeastern USA, inflicts a sort of narcoleptic apathy on me as I read about it. As if that weren’t enough of a disadvantage, the book’s stories predominantly concern the town’s more Cracker Barrel-y aged citizens; to them, I’d be a member of the younger generation that abandoned them for more exciting things. And, honestly? Abandon them I would.

Ah, the Pulitzer-Oprah combo. But don't be fooled: this book is nothing like The Road.

In real life, Elizabeth Strout was one of these emigrants who’d eventually left for New York City and is fully aware of this cultural chasm. She takes it upon herself to make Olive and the rest of Crosby, Maine’s denizens relatable to book clubs across America.

The book is a collection of stories: thirteen slices of Americana depicting the lives of people bound together by their suicidal ruminations and shared addiction to doughnuts. The town’s center of gravity (and almost in a physical sense) is of course the titular character, and whether Crosby’s citizens remember her as an intimidating math teacher or as a critical over-sized hen, Olive’s presence is felt nearly everywhere.

We wouldn’t look back on a traditional novel saying, “I liked it, but it did have some shitty chapters.” The story-collection-as-novel is so much more likely to feel uneven.

Good ones here:

“A Little Burst” — The first piece that actually got me to notice Olive, and then like her in a peculiar moment of pettiness she has at the end.

“Winter Concert” — An elderly couple with a perfect-seeming relationship is tested when a past betrayal is suddenly unearthed. What makes this story so powerful to me is how believably (yet not obnoxiously) ideal The Houltons are, with such touches as when Jane looks at her dozing husband and still recognizes the face he had as a boy.

“Ship in a Bottle” — You know a story’s good when you wouldn’t mind seeing it expanded to a full-length novel. I’d rather read about the Harwoods than the Kitteridges.

Not so good ones:

“Incoming Tide” — Shockingly banal with an “It’s a Wonderful Life” resolution to boot.

“The Piano Player” — Not terrible, but its connection to the rest of the stories is too tenuous for it to be here.

“A Different Road” — Olive suffers a bout of “explosive diarrhea” and makes her husband pull over at a hospital so she can use the restroom. Then the staff wants to examine her in case she’s life-threateningly ill. Then two gunmen in ski masks storm the hospital and take everyone hostage. The unmistakable WTF quality of this piece nearly derails the entire book.

Suicide Sounds Nice

Death turns out to be an unexpected coda throughout Olive Kitteridge. Whenever someone isn’t thinking of offing herself, it’s because she realizes she hasn’t long to live, anyway. With every new character that’s introduced, I’m anticipating the off-handed mention that she’d like to hang herself from the marina dock but not before these chrysanthemums get planted, because when I saw Marlene Bonney at the grocery store she said it’s only going to get colder and she’s usually right about these things, so yup, better do ’em now while it’s nice.

Does Podunk, Maine produce such an unbearable existence, or are we to assume that this nearly unanimous ennui is transferable to the rest of us? Say it with me: AMERICANA! The “This Is Us” insinuation of Olive Kitteridge is further validated by the Pulitzer sticker on the jacket. If you don’t feel the resonance of this book, it’s merely an average reading experience.

So what’s Olive like? An insufferable shrew who manages to endear herself as the book goes on? Not exactly. Mostly, she’s impulsive and salty. And yes, she does undergo dramatic development in response to family tragedy, but she’s never what I’d call loathsome, and the softening of her character gets underway too quickly to have much impact. Not that Olive isn’t interesting, but I’m not seeing what the major book reviews are seeing, which is a dynamic literary personage to remain emblazoned upon my psyche from here to my deathbed, that I should recall, “Ah, that Olive Kitteridge! Such humanity– in her human humanness that is us all!”

I never truly disliked this book until the cute, self-congratulatory “A Conversation with Elizabeth Strout and Olive Kitteridge” in the back matter:

ES: “You are the most fascinating [character] to me. You are ferocious and complicated and kindly and sometimes cruel. In essence, you are a little bit of each of us.”

[Interviewer]: “That is gorgeously said, Ms. Strout.”

(Jesus Christ. Okay, Later…)

Olive: “You know what else is amazing? This book… I thought it was pretty damn good.”  

Well, I’m glad you did, creation of the author who says whatever the author wants.

Tinkers by Paul Harding

Why did I buy this book knowing nothing about it? Was it the expansive whiteout of the jacket design that seemed to enfold me? The mysterious gold foil of the Pulitzer seal (mysterious because who the hell is Paul Harding?) Or my former manager who said this book is brilliant? Granted, he says that about 60% of the novels he reads, but since I’m not often disappointed by his recommendations I’ll say he simply chooses his books well.

Oh, shit. I'm lost.

 

Tinkers is a dying man’s retrospective that also encompasses the life of his enigmatic father. Time is completely unstuck in this novel as it meanders to and from Howard, the elder, and George the younger. Howard was a tinker who drove a donkey cart full of knick-knacks to sell to all the unhappy farmers scraping by in rural New England. His family situation was eventually complicated by his frequent epileptic fits, and one night instead of coming home, he drove his cart on. His son George (who creates an imbalance in this book by being not nearly as interesting) grew up to fix clocks.  It’s hard to say what Tinkers is about, unless I say there is this scrim running alongside Howard’s and George’s lives with the Sublime existing just on the other side of it.

They both get tantalizing glimpses of the unknown, whether it’s during a brush with death or a meditative sojourn to a snow-covered field. It’s in describing these moments where Harding shows how damn talented he is.

“I am not very many years old, but I am a century wide.”

Everyone wants to escape, everyone wants to break out of this encapsulated existence. Everyone feels small. Not important enough, in Howard’s case, to deserve such special suffering as the cosmically-described seizures that wrack him. And why shouldn’t they feel small? They just eke out their drab existence in frostbitten mornings and meager meals in a Podunk province of the Northeastern US.

This is probably why I had little interest in George and Howard, at least up until their relentless grappling for the unknown finally gripped my sympathy. I initially found the book preoccupied with death, as it seemed to lack any other subject in these characters’ lives to merit contemplation.

Surprisingly, the most tragic fate belongs to Howard’s own father, a priest who, eerily, doesn’t die so much as fade away. Gradually losing the reverence of his congregation and family, he vanishes like an imaginary figure whose inventors cease to believe in him.

Allusory Fun Fact: Harding apparently fills this thing with nods to Faulkner, which I would probably recognize had I read more than one Faulkner. For now all I got is “Addie Budden.”

Some of the lyricism is too elevated, too determined to bring earth-shaking profundity to what happens in this book: “The actual seizure was when the bolt touched flesh, and in an instant so atomic, so nearly immaterial, nearly incorporeal, that there was almost no before and after…” (although maybe having an epileptic fit is like “tasting the raw stuff of the cosmos,” I don’t know.) When it’s legitimate, though, it’s… well, Wow.

He lifted his nose from a crate of limes, refreshed and eager to get home to a wife who spoke words out loud as she thought them up and held nothing to whirl and eddy and collect in brackish silences, silences that broke like thin ice beneath you to announce your drowning.

I may well remember Tinkers as a series of awe-striking moments interrupted by stretches of I Don’t Care (e.g. apocryphal descriptions of clockmaking). Still, it was more or less what expected: a small book that looms large, and stretches farther than you can see.