Monthly Archives: March 2013

Book review Tuesday: A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan

I had heard a lot of buzz about Jennifer Egan’s book A Visit from the Goon Squad before I read it: it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, it’s being turned into an HBO series, it’s incredible, etc. However, despite all of this buzz, I knew almost nothing about the structure or plot of the book and thus had no idea what to expect when I picked it up a few weeks ago. It can be refreshing to go into a novel blind; often, I read reviews or excerpts or synopses before I dive into a book, and that can interfere with the process of being swept away by a piece of writing. I’m glad I didn’t read much about Egan’s book before starting it; it allowed me to be continually surprised as I read.

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A Visit from the Goon Squad is composed of a series of interlocking vignettes, spanning approximately 40 years, featuring characters that are somehow connected to each other (whether they know it or not). The structure is a bit like Love Actually (a movie that I love and that my husband loathes for reasons he can’t articulate, probably because it is, in fact, a good movie), in that the characters from one vignette intersect with the characters from the next, but the novel has a larger temporal and geographic range, spanning decades and continents.

I really enjoyed and was impressed by this book. Egan’s characters are superbly rendered and the dialogue is sharp and witty. The structure of the book, for me, was a tad hit or miss, but mostly a hit. Like any series of vignettes, of course, some worked for me better than others. I particularly loved Chapter 4, “Safari,” which my friend Yohanca informs me has won literary prizes in its own right. I think it helped that I was reading the book while on safari at Elephant Plains, so the descriptions of the bush, the vans, and the lions had a special resonance for me. The chapter is about a record executive, Lou, who is on safari somewhere in East Africa (Kenya, I think) with two of his six children, Rolph and Charlie, and his new, younger girlfriend, Mindy. Accompanying them are: a safari ranger, some assorted band members, and two older women with binoculars who see more than they say. Apart from the lovely, evocative descriptions of the landscape, the animals, and the very feeling of being on safari, this chapter contains razor-sharp observations about relationships, illustrated by the poignant interactions among the characters. In this single chapter, Egan illuminates relationships between siblings, parents and children, boyfriends and girlfriends, acquaintances, and strangers. Here is an excerpt I loved, describing an interaction between Lou’s grad student girlfriend, Mindy, and Albert, the British safari guide, as they sit in the safari van, watching some lions in the bush.

Mindy’s face pounds with blood. Her own window, like Albert’s, is on the jeep’s left side, facing away from the lions. Mindy watches him wet his fingers and snuff out his cigarette. They sit in silence, hands dangling separately from their windows, a warm breeze stirring the hair on their arms, ignoring the most spectacular animal sighting of the safari.

“You’re driving me crazy,” Albert says, very softly. The sound seems to travel out his window and back in through Mindy’s, like one of those whispering tubes. “You must know that.”

“I didn’t,” she murmurs back.

“Well, you are.”

“My hands are tied.”

“Forever?”

She smiles. “Please. An interlude.”

“Then?”

“Grad school. Berkeley.”

Albert chuckles. Mindy isn’t sure what that chuckle means – is it funny that she’s in graduate school, or that Berkeley and Mombasa, where he lives, are irreconcilable locations?

I love Egan’s use of dialogue – spare, not overburdened – to convey both the longing of the characters and the impossibility of their situation. Mindy is with Lou, she and Albert live on different continents, they have different life plans. It just won’t work. We get all of that in that little snippet of dialogue.

At the end of “Safari,” I wanted to know more about these characters, but I only got glimpses of them scattered throughout the later vignettes. This is part of what makes the structure of the novel unsatisfying at times; you want to hear more about certain characters and less about others, but each character only gets his or her own little parcel of the plot.

Egan also experiments with structure in the book by playing with narration (first person, third person, even the elusive second person in Chapter 10, “Out of Body”), and even by presenting one of the chapters in the format of a PowerPoint presentation (I wasn’t a fan). Even though I found the PowerPoint chapter to be trying a bit too hard, I do appreciate Egan’s innovativeness. Also, you have to be impressed with an author who can pull off second person narration so well that you almost forget she’s using second person narration:

You look over at Drew, squinting in the sun, and for a second the future tunnels out and away, some version of ‘you’ at the end of it, looking back. And right then you feel it – what you’ve seen in people’s faces on the street – a swell of movement, like an undertow, rushing you toward something you can’t quite see.

There is much to be said about this novel, and I am probably not doing its complexities justice. Rather than trying to sum up this book of many parts, I recommend just reading it and seeing what you think.

Rustenburg

Al and I have embarked on a month-long detox from booze and in his case, candy, and in my case, cheese and dessert (which are often one and the same with me). This is necessary. Very necessary. I’ve spent the last month and a half flitting from place to place, eating rich food and drinking fine (and not so fine) wine, and it has been GLORIOUS, but I feel that my liver is about to give out and the buttons on my pants are about to pop, so it’s time to take a break. In this new spirit of healthy living, then, we decided to have an outdoorsy kind of weekend, so we drove two hours to Rustenburg, the “bustling” provincial capital of Northwest Province, to do some hiking and biking.

Kgaswane Mountain Reserve

Kgaswane Mountain Reserve

Rustenburg itself is pretty low-key – the owner of the lovely B&B we stayed in listed the many dining options at the local mall’s food court when we asked her if there were any nice restaurants nearby – but it’s home to a provincial park called Kgswane Mountain Reserve that has hiking trails and bike paths. On Saturday morning, we went to the mountain reserve with big plans to go biking. We had loaded up our road bikes – which have sat gathering cobwebs, literally, on our porch since we moved to South Africa – and a newly purchased bike pump and we were ready to go. Only problem was, the bike pump didn’t work. After a frustrating half hour of attempting to force the bike pump to work, we gave up and decided to go for a hike. We set off on a hiking trail called the “Vlei Ramble,” but we turned around after a few minutes when it became clear that a machete was necessary to effectively break through the underbrush. And the brambles. Oh, the brambles! Al joked, of course, that the trail should have been called the Vlei Bramble. We hiked a trail called the Peglerei Interpretative Trail (huh?) instead, and it was much better. Great views, plus the whole trail was littered with rose quartz. The weirdly rock-obsessed eight-year-old inside me was geeking out the whole time.

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That night, we decided to go to a “nice” dinner at a place we had read about in one of our guidebooks, the Kedar Country House, which is attached to a hotel and a museum devoted to Paul Kruger. There were several clues along the way that this restaurant was not going to be good: when the parking lot in front of the restaurant was dark and virtually empty, when the man in the hotel lobby seemed baffled that we wanted to eat at the restaurant, when we walked into the restaurant and it was empty except for a harried looking family with several screaming children. It wasn’t until we saw that the restaurant was buffet-style, with steam trays full of unidentifiable meat mash and a table of wilting salads preserved under saran wrap, that we decided to try to find somewhere else. We hastily made our exit. All of the employees seemed to understand.

We made the bold decision to drive another 20 kilometers to Sun City, the self-billed “kingdom of pleasure” of Africa. I guess the other kingdoms in Africa aren’t putting up much competition in the pleasure category (looking at you, Swaziland), so fair enough. Sun City is, in a word, ridiculous. It truly is a little city, containing a golf course, hotels, restaurants, casinos, a wave pool (the grandly named “Valley of Waves”), and even residential facilities. That’s right, people live at Sun City. We had heard that there were some good restaurants there, including something called the Famous Butcher’s Grill. After driving around and seeing no such grill, we asked a valet at the casino, who told us the restaurant was in the Cabanas Hotel. We parked and went into the hotel and asked the concierge about the restaurant. She told us the Famous Butcher’s Grill has been closed for “ten years. Maybe four years.” At this point, we had been driving for an hour, we were hungry, and we were nearing defeat, so we decided to give up and eat at the hotel’s new restaurant, which I’m pretty sure doesn’t have a name, other than “Hotel Restaurant.” It was truly the most generic of hotel restaurants: open plan seating in the middle of the hotel, kids running around and playing on a plastic play structure, and – you guessed it – a BUFFET. Resigned to our fate, we sat down and ate our buffet dinner, which was fine. Not great. But fine.

After dinner, being the old farts we are, we were too tired (from the hiking and the driving and the disappointment) to gamble, so we headed back to the B&B. Plus, we all know that gambling’s not fun unless you have a little liquor in your system to make your choices just bad enough to be interesting.

The next morning, we bought a new bike pump and headed back to the mountain reserve. We successfully pumped the bikes’ tires (huzzah!) and had a really nice bike ride. We did something called the Sable Loop (twice), all the time keeping our eyes peeled for sable antelope, which are very rare but apparently live in the park. We didn’t see any (although we did see zebra, kudu, and impala), but it was still a good ride, and we left Rustenburg feeling satisfied, like we had accomplished something. All in all, a good weekend. Who says you need booze and cheese to have fun?

Lady of Leisure

Yesterday I took a break from writing. Well, not entirely. I wrote a blog post in the morning, and then frittered away an hour reading blogs and news, and then I went to the gym, and then I got a pedicure and had lunch with a friend. And then I came back home and thought, What shall I do now?

The reason I took the break from writing was because the previous evening, I had finished the latest round of revisions on my novel and had sent it to one of my readers/critics to look over before I did anything drastic, like send the manuscript off to agents. Now that my revisions were done, at least for the moment, I didn’t feel like writing anything, but I also didn’t feel like just sitting there, useless. I had to think of something to do.

I thought, Maybe I’ll pick up my knitting again. I have some nice knitting books and I figured I could do some knitting exercises and practice a bit before attempting to dive into the world of sweaters and bunnies. I searched our apartment and realized that I had not actually brought my knitting needles to South Africa. I brought the knitting books, but not the knitting implements. Which is like me, really.

Then I thought, Maybe I’ll read. But I read every day, a lot. All the time. I had just spent my entire pedicure reading (and ignoring the pedicurist’s snarky comments about my dry heels). A crossword puzzle? I do those every day, too, when I watch TV or listen to podcasts. Watch TV? Too defeatist. Cook? It’s 3:45 pm. Go for a walk? I live in Johannesburg, so that’s not gonna work. Go to the gym? Already did that.

Photo on 2012-07-29 at 14.15

Sigh.

The problem is, there’s this urge in me to always be doing something, to always be busy, to always be thinking. It’s hard to suppress it. At times when there is genuinely nothing for me to do – for example, when I am waiting for feedback on my manuscript – I feel that I must occupy these quiet periods with something useful, or at least creative, or else I am just taking up space, and then what good am I? Point being, I could definitely never be a Lady of Leisure. I would go bonkers. I’d probably end up institutionalized by how bonkers I’d go. But I realize, of course, that this is a good problem to have: deciding how to pass my afternoon when there are no demands on me. But, to be honest, it’s a struggle.

Eventually, I decided to compromise by watching Brideshead Revisited (the 1981 miniseries with Jeremy Irons, not the ghastly movie version with Michael Gabon – the horror!) and doing a crossword puzzle. Not exactly what you’d call productive, but at least I’m not watching The E True Hollywood Story: Lindsay Lohan (again). Eventually, I ended up planning and cooking dinner. I made this, one of my all-time favorite Middle Eastern dishes, which I used to chow down on with some frequency when I lived in Detroit. It turned out well, but next time I’d add sultanas, I think.

Anyway. I really wish I had brought my knitting needles.