Generations of Winter was originally conceived as a mini-series for PBS, but when the project was shelved, Vassily Aksynov’s publisher convinced him to make a novel out of the project. The novel was published in the US in 1994, and 10 years later, in late 2004, a mini-series based on the novel made it to Russian television where it was a resounding success. Considering the subject matter, the success of Generations of Winter in Russia must represent a difficult acknowledgement of the horrors of Soviet history which remain unmarked by monuments and for which the government has never officially apologized. Aksyonov is writing from firsthand knowledge when his characters are hauled off in the middle of the night by NKVD agents. Aksyonov’s mother, Evgenia Ginzburg, was sent to the camps when he was five, and he joined her in exile in Siberia when he was 16. He followed in his mother’s footsteps as a writer as well. Ginzburg is well-known for her memoirs of the gulag and exile, Journey into the Whirlwind and Within the Whirlwind. Many reviewers have described Generations of Winter as a War and Peace for the 20th century. Aksyonov’s book is a sprawling, multi-generational tale set between the years 1925 and 1945. It centers on the Gradov family, lively members of the Moscow elite whose lives are shattered by purges, torture and war. Generations of Winter is a historical novel at heart. It’s pages are populated by real historical figures, most notably Stalin, who mingle with the fictional Gradovs. Though the book’s subject matter is difficult, the Gradov’s shine, and the narrative is breathtaking in its scope.
When I was in college, I became excited about some poets, Frank O’Hara, Tennyson, C.K. Williams, and some others. This interest stemmed from a poetry class and from hanging around too much in the local used book store. But I’ve never been grasped by poetry, there’s something too arbitrary about it for me. Still, Some poems by Williams in the New Yorker piqued my interest and I picked up his collection, The Singing, which went on to win the National Book Award. There are handful of very moving poems in this collection. Williams’ best poems are grounded by concrete imagery, and they are engagingly anecdotal. But there are too many poems in this book that aren’t tethered to earthly things at all, and it is difficult for the reader to reach them. He writes engagingly about growing old and about war. The best in the collection is called “The Hearth.” It can be found here.
Jennifer Egan’s latest novel-in-stories is populated by has-beens, suicidals, idealists, divorcees (aka serial monogamists), romantics, and ex-prisoners, many of whom have been chewed up and spit out by the soul-less music and film industries, or the PR machine that fuels them. And if A Visit From the Goon Squad was a traditional story collection, Egan may have titled it Out of Body, after the 10th story-chapter; for we see these characters in blips over time, often muddling through an unsavory, perplexing present and looking back on youth from a vantage point both above and below ghosts of their former selves. The book, for example, opens with a one-night stand between two characters and ends with a fantasy revisitation, some years later: “Alex imagines walking into her apartment and finding himself still there – his young self, full of schemes and high standards, with nothing decided yet.”
But Goon Squad is not a traditional story collection. Its form brings to mind Joan Silber’s Ideas of Heaven, a story cycle in which a minor character from each story becomes the protagonist of the story following (or is it that the protagonist of each story is plucked from the cast of minor characters in the previous story? A question of both process and intention, I suppose; thus the term “cycle.”) The difference is that Goon Quad is not so much a neat cycle (despite the return described above), as it is a 3-D ven diagram; with chapters/characters darting about both laterally and vertically in time, point of view, and detail. It is very much a New York City novel – six degrees of separation everywhere, more often two or three degrees, and not virtually, but in-the-flesh – and it is perhaps Egan’s most decidedly contemporary work, with its headlong dive into the convergence of media, product promotion, hyper-celebrity, and the atomization and gadgetization of our lives.
Bennie and Scotty are high school friends in San Francisco who have a band called the Flaming Dildos. Rhea, Alice, and Jocelyn are their groupies. Scotty and Alice eventually marry, but then divorce. Jocelyn starts up an affair with an older man named Lou, who is a powerful music executive. Lou goes through two marriages, various girlfriends (and Jocelyn, too); his children are Charlene (“Charlie”) and Rolph, the latter of whom, emotionally troubled as he grows into adulthood, “doesn’t make it.” Later, Lou mentors Bennie, who himself discovers a band called the Conduits; the band hits it big, and Bennie founds a successful label in New York called Sow’s Ear Records. For 12 years, his assistant is Sasha (the woman in the opening chapter) – a kleptomaniac and multiple-suicide-attempt survivor whose college best friend Rob also attempts suicide (and also fails) and then drowns on Sasha’s then-boyfriend/eventual husband Drew’s watch. Bennie’s first wife Stephanie works for a PR grand dame named Dolly, and Stephanie’s brother Jules is a gossip journalist who’s just served five years in prison for attempting to sexually assault one of his subjects, a young starlet named Kitty Jackson. Later, as a jaded 28 year-old notorious in the tabloids for on-set tantrums, Kitty participates in a desperate, nearly fatal PR scheme to improve the image of a dictator – a scheme developed by Dolly, who is now persona non grata in the PR world because of a disastrous party she once threw in which an elaborate ceiling decoration went dangerously wrong (Dolly also does some prison time, six months for criminal negligence). Dolly’s daughter Lulu – 9 years old at the time of the Kitty Jackson scheme — eventually becomes Bennie’s new assistant, post Sow’s Ear (and post-Stephanie) after Bennie’s gone back to producing indie musicians (and remarried to a young woman named Lupa). In the novel’s finale, Lulu teams up with Alex – Bennie’s new potential protégé, and Sasha’s one-night-stand from Chapter 1– to promote Scotty’s return to the music scene as an indie soloist.
Phew. I drew a flow chart myself to sort it all out, which I found helpful. Take that, agents and editors who warn novelists against “too many characters.” And I haven’t even named here all the children.
Ah, the children.
The eponymous goon here may be time (“Time’s a goon,” the washed out, former lead singer of the Conduits says, as does Bennie later on) – time passes, time disorients, time wears and tears; and in no other universe does time trample on souls and bodies more ruthlessly than in that of entertainment – “This is the music business,” Sasha reminds Bennie. “Five years is five hundred years.” Egan’s eyes and ears for the world of appearances – glitz, glam, and all that is required to churn the celebrity machine – is acute (territory that Egan readers will recognize from her first story collection Emerald City and from her second novel Look At Me), and she does take particular interest in exploring the particular brand of ruin that befalls the formerly famous/pseudo-famous. But she’s also got her sights set on the future – on the children, on their particular experience of this same disorienting, media-fied and atomized world of experience-on-demand. How are they responding to all of it, and how are they being shaped? I’m not sure that Egan answers that question, as much as she asks it; but she does render child characters – and child flashbacks of adult characters — with a striking reverence for both their genius and sensitivity. Lulu —
“Overhearing her daughter on the phone with her friends, Dolly was awed by her authority: she was stern when she needed to be, but also soft. Kind. Lulu was nine” –
“At eleven years old, Rolph knows two clear things about himself: He belongs to his father. And his father belongs to him…Rolph closes his eyes and opens them again. He is in Africa with his father. He thinks, I’ll remember this night for the rest of my life. And he’s right” –
Sasha at age 5 —
“…the child was spinning them out as a way of filling the time, distracting them both from whatever was going on inside that house. And this made her seem much older than she really was, a tiny little woman, knowing, world-weary, too accepting of life’s burdens to even mention them” –
and Sasha’s daughter Allison and “slightly autistic” son Linc – these are the real stars of A Visit From the Goon Squad. And, to put a fine point on it, Egan gives us “Pure Language,” the final chapter: a futuristic glimpse into the inevitable creep of precociousness-meets-technology.
In addition to the children themselves, I found the brother-sister relationships – and the portrayal of platonic love between male and female in general (between, for example, Bennie and Sasha, and Sasha and Robert) – moving and poignant. Chapter 12 is told from young Allison’s perspective, in “slide journal” form (a kind of poetic-diagrammatic Powerpoint), and provides for us a child’s view of her parents’ estrangement; which is at root the estrangement of her father from her beloved brother Linc, a mathematical/musical idiot savant, who intuits the goonishness of time even at his young age via his obsession with musical pauses:
“[Linc’s] crying makes sounds like scraping / Hearing him cry makes me cry, too. / Dad tries to hug Lincoln but he flinches away and hunches his back into a ball. / Mom’s face is white and furious. / She leans close to Dad, and says very softly: / The pause makes you think the song will end. And then the song isn’t really over, so you’re relieved. But then the song does actually end, because every song ends, obviously, and THAT. TIME. THE. END. IS. FOR. REAL.”
Fans of Egan’s previous novels will be intrigued and excited, I think, to delve into her work in this new (for her) collage, time-shifty, polyphonic form. What the form does have in common with a traditional story collection, however, is that each chapter on some level stands on its own and thus the reader experiences the same unevenness as when reading a series of stories. “Safari,” in my opinion, is far and away the novel’s strongest chapter (having read it in the New Yorker, I was primed and jonzing for Goon Squad); but its characters are not as narratively central as others, and so its strength tips the work in a slightly disorienting way. Without revisiting Charlie or Rolph or even Mindy, Lou’s girlfriend at the time, in any substantial way, we’re left a bit dissatisfied.
I was myself eager to see how the novel-in-stories form would serve and showcase Egan’s particular talents as a sharp observer of modern families and culture, along with her idea-driven approach to fiction. In the end, Goon Squad delivers on all the pleasures of Egan’s gifts as we’ve seen them displayed in the past – crisp and pulsing prose, extraordinary psychological insight, finely-specified characters seen from various points of view, a dark and yet vibrant wit, and off-the-charts observational intelligence. But the strain apparent in much of Egan’s work, i.e. the plotty feeling of her plots, is also still evident here, perhaps even more so given the myriad strands she pulls together in order to connect all of her dots (credible degrees of separation notwithstanding). Egan’s work often contains hard turns of the steering wheel (I am thinking here of Phoebe’s one-in-a-million run-in with Wolf in Munich in The Invisible Circus, and Egan’s puppeteer’s handling of the characters/meta-characters in The Keep), and readers will feel steered and handled in Goon Squad as well. But as a student of mine has put it, “It feels a little like she’s putting a fat kid in a tutu; but boy, that kid can dance.” And: “It feels like she’s moving furniture; but you’re sort of in awe of the fact that she has the balls to put the sofa in the kitchen.” In my own work, I find I am also less interested in story than idea or character, and have been known to make strategic (some might say liberal) use of the coincidence; so it’s inspiring to see Egan careen and maneuver with a sure hand.
A Visit From the Goon Squad ultimately secures Jennifer Egan’s place as a personal touchstone for me, and I would guess for many emerging novelists. Her work is (skillfully, decidedly) equal parts brainy and empathic, hyper-realist and fantastical, gritty and luminous; it is both so-damned-good and identifiably flawed. I teach her stories often and encourage my students (and myself) with her example: “Be brave; sometimes you just need to grab the reins and try stuff.”
So, I’m back again after a week in New York. We move to Chicago in three weeks, and after a summer living out of suitcases, an apartment all our own will be a relief. Over the past few weeks I’ve read four books. I read them on the beach, in cafes, in cars, subways, and airplanes, and in halflit, air-conditioned rooms over the course of long, languid afternoons. This has been some serious summer reading. I plan to get to all of them this week, beginning today with the modern classic and winner of the National Book Award in 1962, The Moviegoer by Walker Percy. I had never heard of this book before I started working at the book store, and it seems to be one of those books that is half-remembered and dimly loved by those who read it decades ago. The moviegoer is Binx Bolling, a successful businessman and a member of a prominent and eccentric New Orleans family. He is unmarried and enjoys the escape that going to the movies provides. He is unable to keep himself from dating his secretaries, and he is constantly trying to hold “despair” at bay. It is an existential novel of the American suburbs where Binx tries to find meaning or hope in the midst of mundanity. But it isn’t preachy or didactic, it meanders and searches, and one begins to wonder if Binx is a madman and not just a lonely bachelor. In this sense it has a lot more depth than some other books of middle-aged male suburban angst that I’ve read over the years, The Sportswriter and Independence Day by Richard Ford and Wheat That Springeth Green by J.F. Powers to name a few, and Binx seems far more ethereal than Frank Bascombe or Joe Hackett. It’s short and cleverly written, and I recommend the book to anyone with a taste for the internal monologues of a Southern thinker.I added Adam Langer’s much-praised debut, Crossing California to the reading queue, and I’m about to start reading part one of Peter Guralnick’s two-part biography of Elvis Presley, Last Train to Memphis. More soon!