Some recent books I’ve enjoyed…
What’s most blown me away recently has been Jennifer Egan’s badly-titled A Visit From the Goon Squad. (Here’s the NYT review.) I can’t think of a work of recent “literary fiction” that I’ve found at once so brilliant and also compulsively entertaining, the kind of novel you gobble down like a mystery. It also manages to combine some of the best virtues of postmodern fiction and those of a more realist novel. In some ways it feels to me like a traditional realist novel, offering the pleasures of deep character, nuanced insights into motivation, desire, and psychology, a sense of a larger social world and a sociological whole, etc etc. — but one that somehow hit upon a new kind of formal strategy that could, at least superficially, be described as “postmodern.” The novel begins with a woman named Sasha, who apparently used to work as the assistant for a music-business mogul named Bennie Salazar, on a bad first date with a guy named Alex. She goes into the women’s room and on an impulse steals a wallet sticking out of a woman’s purse. From here, the novel spirals outward with each chapter having a different character as the protagonist or focalizing central consciousness, and no single character getting more than one chapter dedicated to him or her. What could seem at first like a gimmick somehow works seamlessly; we soon realize that we’re not leaving these characters behind, simply shifting into new consciousnesses — and also into new and shifting historical moments, so that we double back and learn more about the distant history of episodes we’ve already encountered. We even get to the future, 2050 or so, in a few chapters with a bit of a sci-fi feel. Certain episodes, details, statements recur, from slightly new perspectives, slowly building up a fractal crystal kind of sense of a whole. The novel shares a tone or atmosphere with some recent film experiments with narration and temporality, e.g. Memento or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and the like; the novel has a giddy sense of experiment that sometimes made me think of Michel Gondry, Charlie Kaufmann, or Spike Jonze films. (It also sounds as if it has a few things in common with the new Gary Shteyngart novel Super Sad True Love Story — I just read the excerpt in the New Yorker, which I loved).
Have to mention the chapter which is a power-point presentation (with each page a “slide” featuring little cheesy power-point graphics & charts) created by a 12-year-old girl in 2020 or so, and which is, amazingly, one of the most moving parts of the novel; it’s basically her attempt to explore her family history (she’s Sasha’s daughter) and to explain the obsessions of her autistic brother.
What can I say… it’s really dazzling and hilariously witty, and also moving and wise; I kept reading passages out loud to Sarah. It also revolves, to a degree, around the pop music business, which was especially entertaining for me.
Other books… Lev Grossman’s The Magicians. Can’t be described any way other than as “Harry Potter for grownups,” or for young adults, maybe: it’s very similar to a Harry Potter plot but with a lot of sex, drinking and drugs, and a lot more grown-up darkness and ambiguity. For a while I felt that it was really entertaining but to a degree limited by its closeness to the source (Harry Potter and also the Narnia books). But it actually gets more interesting and subtle and does some smart things with the implications of our own desire for fantasy and to escape into imaginary worlds.
Nick Reding, Methland: the Death and Life of an American Small Town. (The NYT review.) A journalistic account of the way the scourge of meth addiction has affected (/ destroyed) one small town in Iowa. Very disturbing and interesting. One fascinating factoid: a major player in the book is a woman named Lori Arnold who basically created and modernized the meth industry in the Midwest, forging new business chains of communication with California and Mexico. At one point she owned a huge horse farm, containing dozens of thoroughbreds and employing scores of horse trainers and vets, etc., all of which served as a cover for her enormous meth factory. Anyway, the weird detail here is that she is none other than the sister of Tom Arnold (Roseanne Barr’s ex-husband). Weird family.
Worth reading, especially if you still have idealized visions of life in small-town America. One eye-opening passage describes the town’s mayor’s attempt to raise the fortunes of the town by attracting a major employer:
Murphy’s task was to raise the town from the ashes. He had to build a foundation of decent economic growth, and he had to do it ASAP. Businesses like the call center could afford to be choosy — every hard-luck town in the U.S. was courting them. In fact, Murphy believed that most companies were looking for a certain modicum of poverty as a fail-safe against union organizing. If people were desperate, they’d concede this essential ground to the company…. The trick was to look like something in between a union town and a town that was downright criminally dangerous. Oelwein had to appear complacently impoverished but nonetheless like a nice place to raise a family.
I’d read about this book when it came out but was reminded of it by seeing the fantastic movie Winter’s Bone, a drama that takes place among meth users and dealers in rural Missouri, very much the world of Methland. We also have started watching the t.v. series Breaking Bad, which is great — having a bit of a meth-narratives festival. Clearly if pot = 1950s and 60s, coke= 1970s and 80s, meth = 2000s.
Reding makes interesting points about the way meth can be seen as (I’m quoting from memory) the first major illegal drug that is “more vocational than recreational.” Earlier in the 20th century methamphetamine (in the form of Benedrine) was marketed as a way to stay alert and peppy; it developed into a aid for manual laborers, a drug that can allow someone to work without sleeping or resting for days straight. Today it has metastasized in regions with low employment; what began as a work aid becomes a work replacement, and a major part of the economy of these towns. It’s also arguably more socially, physically, and socially destructive than crack (some very gruesome anecdotes in the book). Scary book.