Saturday, September 10, 2011

Book Review : "A Visit from the Goon Squad" by Jennifer Egan

A Visit from the Goon SquadA Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

OK. Here is the review. Warning - it's one of those subjective/personal ones.


At 54 years of age, I don’t have a particularly coherent narrative version of my own life. Some of the more obvious events stand out in relief, but there are discontinuities, there are periods where everything seems to flow together, and there are many, many gaps - weird lacunae of years at a time. Did I really do nothing but work my butt off between the ages of 35 and 45? Kind of seems that way now, more’s the pity. Oh wait, didn’t I co-author a book in there somewhere? I’m proud of that book, less so of the friendships I allowed to wither on the vine during the process of writing it.

Any narrative cohesion that does exist in my version of my life story comes, I have no doubt, at the cost of accuracy, because it just represents the fact that I have been able to reshape those parts of the story mentally to fit some kind of narrative arc with which I am satisfied. I think we all tend to do this, which is why all memoirs need to be filed, once and for all, under the rubric of “fiction”, and why maybe, at long last, we need to stop beating up on the unfortunate James Frey. (And why I should probably give my bete noire, Frank McCourt, a pass for one of my least favorite memoirs, “Angela’s Ashes”; though my review of that book continues to annoy certain people so much that I am reluctant to change it at this point).

Proust, and assorted neuroscientists, would have us believe that our sense of smell plays an important role in generating our memories. I can’t really argue the point, but in her latest work, “A Visit from the Goon Squad”, Jennifer Egan taps into something that seems to me to be far more powerful, and far more relevant to most of our experience, when she identifies music as playing a key role in shaping memory and the resulting versions of our lives that we carry with us. Certainly, in my case, this is true. Whatever my memories, real or invented, music has a way of keeping me honest.

Sometimes the associations are of my own making. Thus, for instance, all I have to do is to hear the Al Stewart song “Year of the Cat” to be transported immediately (and viscerally) back to the winter of 1978-1979, where this particular album formed the background to my relentless onslaught on functional analysis and probability theory as I studied for my joint master’s in Math/Statistics at University College back in Cork. Or flash forward a few years to when I was grappling with my doctoral problem in Chapel Hill, both “breakthrough” ideas, those that formed the core of my eventual dissertation, came to me to the soundtrack of Jackson Browne’s “The Pretender”, which blared from the record player in my office in Smith Building at 3 in the morning.

Sometimes the musical associations are laid by others. For instance, it occurs to me that - no, the period between 35 and 45 in my life was not completely given over to work. There was the disastrous 7-month interlude when I dated Marty, one of the most charming, but completely messed-up, drunks inhabiting the Bay Area during the spring and summer of 1998. The guy was mad, bad, and dangerous to know, and he had a complete thing for the music of Celine Dion. So that if I want to be transported back to the particular state of vulnerability and fury that characterized our entire relationship, all I need to do is put “The Power of Love” on the stereo, and it all comes flooding back. By the same token, if I want to remember my first unrequited crush (on that oh-so-cute music teacher in Gaelic camp when I was 15), the slow movement of Beethoven’s 7th (in my defense, I was 15, it all seemed very tragic to me at the time) will take me back there every time.

But it’s the cues we are unaware of that are perhaps the most powerful in keeping our memories honest. How else to explain my recent experience, driving back up 280 to SF a few days before leaving for Paris? With no warning, the radio station began to play the song “Driver’s Seat” by Sniff ‘n the Tears, and the effect on me was so profound I had to pull to the side of the road until the song ended, after which it still took me several minutes to recover. Because I was no longer on 280 or anywhere near it. I was in my room in Craig Dorm in Chapel Hill, in September 1979, newly arrived the previous week from Cork, feeling that mix of trepidation, promise, fear, and possibility that characterized that whole first year in Chapel Hill.

Only these musical cues, lodged in our psyches like so many time bombs, have the visceral power to take us back in quite the same way.

What does any of this have to do with Jennifer Egan’s book? Everything, really. Because she captures that power utterly and completely, with something approaching genius. Which may be why this book left me flummoxed at the outset. But which is also why I can give it no fewer than 5 stars.

Ms Egan, you rock!

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1 comment:

  1. Evocative, great post, sir. But I've never heard of Sniff'n the Tears, of course.