A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan was hailed by most critics last year and I’d been meaning to read it for a long time. It is a novel that is book ended by two main characters, Sasha and Bennie–in their relative youth and in their more middle age. In between is a series of chapters where these two characters are on the periphery somewhere and the chapter is focused on someone loosely connected to one of them.
As I was reading it, I found it a little kitschy and a a little hard to follow, feeling like I knew I’d have to reread it if I wanted to truly understand. After I finished the book, I read a bunch of reviews and most people described the chapters as more like short stories. Had I gone into the reading with that mindset, I think it would have been a different experience.
The part of the book that I loved, however, was when the narrator was Sasha’s 11 year old daughter Alison, who told her story in a powerpoint journal. The future sections of the book all showed technology gone incredibly annoying, but somehow this was a thought provoking blend of the visual and the written. A few of the things she mentioned particularly struck a chord with me and I found a bit of a kindred spirit in both of these female characters. This is, in part, a book about time, and these moments felt the least jaded and most hopeful to me.
“Mom’s Art” slide is where Alison tries to explain the art that her mom, Sasha (who the reader meets at the beginning of the book as a 30 year old women in therapy for kleptomania):
“She uses found objects, they come from our house and our lives, she glues them onto boards and shellacs them, she says they’re precious because they’re casual and meaningless, but they tell the whole story if you really look.”
This is an interesting fact to learn about Sasha: that she now “steals” objects that have no meaning to most people, but is able to find meaning in them, and that she seems able to create true meaning in her life. As a reader, writer and sometimes poet, I love small details that feel meaningless to most people, but have a story underneath. I think it’s significant that Egan uses the word shellacs–it sounds a bit like a desperate push to save something, or, an artistic way to create and remember the details that get forgotten among louder, bolder ones.
I’ve found myself telling others recently that maybe New York has finally gotten to me because I have felt really cynical about a lot of things lately. This is not how I would ordinarily describe myself, so it has been interesting to find this creeping in on my psyche and seeing it play out in my life. Reading this section reminded me that I am both nostalgic and sentimental; and rather than seeing those characteristics as sappy or weak, I think that they allow me to look at the big picture of beauty in life–and that is just what this part-time, temporary cynic needs.
I mentioned a few posts ago that my reading life has been a bit full. A colleague of mine mentioned that she was reading and couldn’t put down Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. I finished this book within 24 hours at 11:30 pm and proceeded to google Joan Didion, reading and thinking way too late well into the night. An account of her husband’s death and her story of grief and memory, it was the closest, most poignant description of loss I have ever come across. And though I cannot directly relate to her story, she tapped into the underlying inevitability of the human story: that though we are capable of extraordinary love, we must also live through love lost.
One of the most poignant aspects of this book for me was Didion’s intertextuality: “In time of trouble, I had been trained since childhood, read, learn, work it up, go to literature.” She breathes in all sorts of texts to process, and all I could think about was how frail life is and how we need art and story and memory to hold onto, however impossible it is to hold it in our hands no matter how hard we, I, try.
Life is frail;
feeling slips through my fingers
and pools in the depth of my chest.
I am left grasping for the pages and the images and answers
I cannot hold in my hands.
I have found that the biggest contradiction in my life (which I think I can also find beautiful?) is my belief in Truth next to my need to process through the lens of postmodernism. I connected with Didion not on the subject matter of her memoir, but in the way that through multiple texts and words I am able to attempt to make sense of the world around me: it is not a solitary painting or song or poem or story, but the compilation of each experience…and the fact that it seems near impossible to name any singular emotion with exacting clarity. Life will not ever be interpreted, for me, in one long, linear string of events; there are far too many strings in my web of an existence, each pouring into my understanding in its own way.
When researching for the Ars Poetica project I gave some of my students, I came across these lines by Czeslaw Milosz:
The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person,
for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,
and invisible guests come in and out at will.
The last aspect of The Year of Magical Thinking that I want to comment on is the title itself. Didion references throughout the memoir that she kept thinking that John, her husband, would be coming back. The phrase magical thinking is heartbreaking–because as children we truly can believe in it and as adults it seems that it only comes by way of self deception, and loses the hope that is attached. I suppose that this is where my understanding of Truth comes in, though this is not the post or the place in which to fully disclose my beliefs. But. I do believe that there is a place for magical thinking, though it is not directly connected to the reality of this world. And I sometimes think that we need the magic to survive, sometimes.
As I’ve been studying the hero’s journey (see link in post below, think Star Wars or Lord of the Rings: a single character rises to the challenge of a quest set before him/her and goes through many trials in order to acheive that quest), I’ve been trying to think about how this relates to postmodern story telling (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Post_modern_literature). Pre-postmodern literature often sees a quest for meaning in a chaotic world, where the postmodern rejects or parodies this singular quest. So my question is what does the post modern hero’s journey look like?
This question came about while watching Lost this week. All of the characters seem to be on their own “journey”–mentally, as well as the obvious physical one. However, there doesn’t seem to be one clear “hero” (despite the hero complexes that many of the characters portray). Each of the survivors on the island are facing individual “roads of trial,” emphasized by the flashbacks and flash-forwards.
The modernist side of my brain wants to make it all linear: that there is one “answer” for what is going on and that all of the characters stories weave together in a single, satisfying narrative strand. But as the episodes of this season progress, I find myself being frustrated at my inability to connect everything together. The postmodern side of my brain is loving the complexity of the empathy I feel for Ben and the vastness of Juliet’s motives. It is grappling with letting go of the desire to have one, clear answer that explains everything that has happened on the island.
It appears that there are multiple levels of “quests” that are happening and have happened on the island–they include high stakes conspiracies as well as individual odysseys. Do I need to let go of the dream that they are all intimately connected? Do I need to embrace this portrayal of the potential post modern hero? (Would all characters qualify as such?)
Well, after that potentially inarticulate rant, at the very least, Lost serves as a distraction to the things I actually need to accomplish today. Sigh.
One of the most heartbreaking things in “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” was all of the miscommunication between the characters in the story. One character doesn’t talk, but only writes. Other relationships literally go unfinished. Adults don’t trust children with their innermost thoughts nor children adults, even though both sides feel the resulting disconnect. And I suppose that disconnected really is the best way to describe it because lonesomeness is the only thing that can result, even if one is surrounded by people.
I realized how often this has run through my mind when I finished rereading “The Catcher in the Rye” about a month ago and when I started “Gilead” last weekend. Both of them have one narrator who tells the length of the story through his (in both cases) point of view. Therefore, the reader gets a thorough understanding of how he sees the world and the particular situation around him. And this is what I love about literature…the way I can get inside someone else’s head who doesn’t think the way I do.
If I look over my reading list from the past six months or so, many of the books I have read have abandoned the notion of having one narrator who tells the story through his or her eyes for multiple narrators who show different interpretations of the same events. It’s almost a trick for keeping the reader on his or her toes. It’s easy to cheer for the narrator when his or her opinion is the only one that you know—as the reader you often see the story with the same convictions and prejudices. The narrator’s heartbreaks and judgements become your own. But what about when you read multiple points of view? When you see two sides of a divorce? When you understand how both the child and the parent feels? When light is cast on a conflict you were convinced could only be seen one way?
It is almost as though you have this amazing moment of understanding because you realize that each pair of eyes interprets the world in its own way. All of a sudden you find yourself sympathizing with both sides of a conflict. The conflict becomes secondary to the hearts of the people, the faces, the hearts involved. An issue is no longer black and white.
This is an amazing challenge. This kind of reading forces me to consider people. People with individual stories. People with individual feelings. The more I think about it, this is the way that I want to look at the world. Change in any situation is not as likely to happen if you aren’t invested in the people. If I were to look at my students just as a group of 13 year old students, I would miss out on so much, and my teaching would show it. If I keep poverty and injustice as abstract concepts in the back of my mind, that’s all they will remain.
So I guess what I’m trying to say is that I love this postmodern take on narration and what it can do with my own thinking. “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” deals with the aftermath of September 11th through the eyes of a child who lost his father, his grandmother and his estranged grandfather. Foer pulls the reader in a way that causes the heart to ache with empathy and poetic understanding of how individual people deal with an overwhelming amount of grief. Life almost becomes a little more whole as you take on someone else’s point of view for a while. This is true in real life, too. As far as the miscommunication and disconnect is concerned, the entire time I was reading I was almost shouting at the characters to tell the others about what was actually going on in their heads: “Look at one another and speak what is true! Listen for just a second! Ask him what’s actually going on! Tell him your heart!” Sigh. I always feel the most humbled when fictional characters shout the truth at me.
(Recommended books with multiple narrators: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, History of Love, Atonement, Inheritance of Loss, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter)