Quick Review: Egan’s books The Invisible Circus, Look at Me, A Visit From the Goon Squad

After reading several positive reviews of Jennifer Egan’s newest book, I decided to read her earlier work. Here are my thoughts after reading three of her first four novels:

1. One of the more consistent themes is tying together the past with the present and future, both in the personal stories of the characters as well as broader social forces that are always swirling around and threatening to sweep them along. For example, one of the main characters in Look at Me is trying to connect the past of Rockford, Illinois to a vision of the future. He is convinced that the decline of this Rust Belt city will illuminate important paths forward. Or, the characters in The Invisible Circus are trying to figure out what their actions as teenagers mean for their barely-formed adult lives.

2. All of the characters are flawed – sometimes by their own actions and other times through their family – and they are searching for answers. Rarely do they find them. Dreams are remembered yet lost as the characters can’t quite figure out how they got to this point of adult existence. Relationships burst with intensity and then fade. Success is fleeting. A Visit From the Goon Squad does a lot with this: even as the story lines come together to suggest that our future lives may not be very desirable, we are shown intriguing yet short glimpses of characters and relationships spanning several decades.

3. Across the three books, there are a number of settings ranging from San Francisco to Rockford to New York City to European locations big and small. The communities are present but also not present. They come and go in broad strokes. To illustrate, New York City is featured and the characters stagger around and big landmarks and ideas are mentioned but there is little tangible connection to places. Perhaps this is how people truly do live their lives these days as they focus on their private selves.

4. Much of the time I was reading these three books, I could not shake the idea that these works are heavily influenced by Tom Wolfe. The characters are caught between the cosmos and their day-to-day concerns. The language is loose and evocative. There seem to be larger messages and commentary about societal change though perhaps the clearest message is that modern individuals have no idea of how to figure any of this out.

All in all, I found the stories engaging and thought-provoking. However, they also had an ephemeral quality. Do they provide some deep insights into who we are today and where we are headed? Or, are they a cleverly-constructed yet ultimately common story of human frailty? It may take some time for me to answer these queries in my own mind even as literary critics seem to think Egan is asking the right questions.

 

The dystopias right in front of us: “Sochi is Pure Dystopian Reality”

Much has been written about Sochi and its varying degrees of glitz and cover-up. This piece considers the dystopian aspects of Sochi and how it compares to recent fictional dystopias.

But here’s the best-worst part: no matter how many articles use the word “dystopia,” Sochi doesn’t just look like a hellish future straight off the NYT bestseller list. It’s a complete and active masterpiece—because despite all the plot markers, despite all the freaky realities that scream something is really wrong here, we still tune in. Just like the Hunger Games‘ Capitol citizens, Western audiences eat up happy-faced Olympic broadcasts as readily as we have since the games were first televised on a closed circuit in Berlin in 1936. We’ll read all the coverage as entertainment, make Twitter jokes about stray dogs, and laugh about it over drinks (even if it’s to keep from crying). Six thousand athletes will compete just as they did in London in 2012, even if tourists don’t quite make it out. The Olympics are the Olympics, after all. Sochi is the Dystopian Singularity because we accept it as reality—and thus are complicit in its success…

If this is really happening, though, at least we have a few protagonists. Members of the radical-feminist punk performance art collective Pussy Riot have been active, powerful critics of President Putin’s regime—which is exactly how they came to the West’s attention at all. After several members’ arrest and political imprisonment for hooliganism (after they performed a radical protest song in Moscow’s biggest cathedral), Maria “Masha” Alyokhina and Nadezhda “Nadya” Tolokonnikova were released in December just months before their two-year sentence was up. (They maintain that their release was a Putin PR stunt.) While the pair have since split from Pussy Riot proper to pursue their own activism for prisoners’ rights, their association with the group and the media tour they’ve taken in the past few months has made many aware of the dire sociopolitical circumstances in Russia. Last week they appeared on The Colbert Report and at an Amnesty International benefit concert, where they urged people to boycott or protest the Games and the leaders overseeing them. There’s no quantitative way to measure Nadya and Masha’s success—and it’s likely that some might miss the point—but it’s a good bet that their story (and Pussy Riot’s message) has resonated with audiences even if it doesn’t affect their willingness to add to the ratings.

There are quieter acts of solidarity, as well, scripted straight from Katniss’s victory tour: Russian snowboarder Alexey Sobolev appeared to display a Pussy Riot member on the bottom of his board when he took to the slopes on Thursday; the same day, Google unleashed a pro-LGBT Doodle. One could even argue that Jonny Weir’s fashion statements are marks of resistance. But these won’t change the fact that things will probably worsen in Russia after the Games end and the world stops watching; the Olympics are notorious for draining economies dry and Sochi is the most expensive Games ever assembled.

Certainly, Sochi isn’t single-handedly decimating the dystopia YA marketplace, but it’s nonetheless a perfect example of why the genre is failing. It’s not because a shallow fad has run its course; it’s because the fantasies and the facts have become nearly identical. And that’s the problem — Entertainment is meant to be an escape, fantasy and science-fiction in particular; movies about poverty don’t do well during a recession because no one in the midst of turmoil likes seeing their suffering splashed onto the silver screen. And it’s not just in Sochi, either; from Snowden, to the American wealth gap, to the (thankfully canceled) prospect of DMX cage-fighting George Zimmerman on pay-per-view, to the world’s premier newspaper printing an accused pedophile’s “response” to his child victim’s account, there are countless examples of our satirical imagination matching the real world right at our front door. (And we wonder why people still get fooled by Onion articles.) The fact is, when the allegory starts looking like the reality, it’s time for the allegory to evolve.

Perhaps we should then ask what the average viewer/consumer is supposed to do in this situation. Ignore the Olympics? Engage in a more real world right in front of them? Insist the Olympics avoid countries with lots of inequality (Russia might seem like an obvious choice but others might argue this could rule out the United States)?

This also hints that the really important dystopias are not ones we imagine but rather ones that are right in front of us that we don’t notice. This might be like the tourist experience: we are often like visitors who hope to see the popular sights and are distracted by what is new and exciting. How closely do we look behind the scenes? (This is starting to sound like a pitch I would make in an Introduction to Sociology course.) A number of sociologists have voiced their concerns about “fake” places, often invoking Disney World or Las Vegas or Times Square, that tend to hide the real world behind consumerism and private spaces.

Quick Review: the Sherlock Holmes stories

One of my reading projects this summer was to read all of the Sherlock Holmes short stories (56) and novels (4). I enjoyed reading these classics and here are a few thoughts about the well-known detective and his sidekick Watson:

1. I don’t read a lot of mysteries but I can see that more recent detectives (books, TV, movies) have hints of Holmes. Holmes is the classic scientific detective, reasoning his way through tough cases. There has to be a line from Holmes to Hercule Poirot to Adrian Monk. Of course, Holmes’ emphasis on science also emerges as the larger society moves more toward a belief of science and progress.

2. I’m not sure that I like Sherlock Holmes in the end and I’m not sure Doyle wanted people to like him but rather wanted people to be impressed by him. Holmes certainly has a sharp mind but he is given to mood swings, using opium, and rarely shows a non-scientific side. For example, there are a few points in the later stories where Watson seems thrilled that Holmes reveals some warm feelings for his companion. Holmes is a sort of modern renaissance man but is a limited person.

3. Even with the presence of Professor Moriarty, there was one big difference with recent stories: there is a lack of a major villain. Indeed, Holmes does a lot of one-off cases and there are a few recurring characters.

4. After reading all of these stories, I’m not sure I could remember the details of many of them. I liked the four novels the most as there was room to develop the cases and have more twists and turns.

5. I had the opportunity to read most of these stories in the Oxford annotated editions (see an example here). At first, I thought this would be a hindrance (that long introduction, the extensive footnotes) but I really grew to enjoy this. This particularly came in handy with the novels The Gang of Four and A Study in Scarlet as the footnotes described how Doyle built the stories around interesting true events. I didn’t read all of the footnotes (and they truly seemed to be extensive – and occasionally esoteric) but the introductions were helpful.

6. I wish I had read these all in chronological order.

7. I suspect it would have been very different to read these all in the serial form in which they were released.

Shoddy McMansions provide good settings for books, movies

A book review in the Christian Science Monitor suggests that McMansions lend themselves to good mysteries:

Forget crumbling castles or isolated mansions. The recession has created something truly rare: a whole new kind of haunted house. The summer’s best two mysteries are both set in shoddy subdivisions of McMansions – relics of wrecked hopes built just before the housing bubble popped in 2007. Both feature seemingly golden couples, one Irish and one American, who lose the ability to cope when the world suddenly throws out the guidebook to the good life. And both offer shrewdly written, darkly compelling stories that rank among the year’s best.

So there is at least one good thing about McMansions: they make for good dystopian settings!

I will note that this is not limited to fiction books. A number of movies and television shows also use McMansions as a backdrop. Think of The Sopranos or the Real Housewives series. As with books, there is some commentary here as well: McMansions are lived in by certain kinds of people.