Author – Jennifer Egan
Published – 2011
Genre – Modern fiction
I was lucky enough to win a copy of this book (along with a huge stack of others) from the lovely people at Constable & Robinson.
This must be one of the titles I have heard most about this year. On Twitter and Blogs there are numerous references to this book. Just a quick search on Twitter will tell you that people love this book “Loved Jennifer Egan visit from goon squad”, “it was fab & I might just read it again” and “Bloody brilliant, surreal & touching!”. Not much of a clue about the contents though – except for one description of it being “set in the US music biz.” I also knew that the book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2011, although I may be showing my ignorance here by saying that the only Pulitzer I’d previously heard of was for journalism. A quick look at that font of all knowledge, Wikipedia, tells me that unless the previous winners have been made into a film, I haven’t heard of them. Perhaps time to broaden my reading horizons?
So when I began reading I had no clue what the book would be about, except that I’m bound to love it & the writing’s clever (because obviously I hadn’t read the blurb on the cover).
The book begins with Sasha, in a session with her therapist, discussing a recent episode of her kleptomania. We’re in what seems to be contemporary New York and Sasha’s telling a story about her first date with a guy, and after a purse snatching incident in a bar, they go back to her apartment.
Next chapter – we’re with Bennie (ah – is this the Bennie that Sasha referred to as her boss?) who’s something big in the music industry – and there’s Sasha , who is his assistant. Phew. And we seem to be at the same time as Sasha’s story. Great.
OK, I get what’s happening here and I understand books that have multiple characters with their own stories. One of my favourite books is Marge Piercy’s “Gone to Soldiers” which does this in the Second World War with 10 characters, so I’m more than happy with this type of storytelling.
After two relatively straightforward chapters, the book then starts to jump around in time and introduces yet more characters. Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy the story and seeing where the stories and characters interlink, but a pet peeve of mine is authors who leave the reader to guess when something is set. Why? Not knowing is only distracting and unless the timing is supposed to be a mystery we’ll find out somehow. Just a big date at the front of the chapter and I’ll be much happier.
Then we get to a penultimate chapter which I’d not heard about – Powerpoint. Yes, a whole chapter told by a child through the medium of Powerpoint. Whether you think this is clever, innovative, or just plain odd – try sitting on a train reading your book sideways & see what other people think!
In the final chapter a number of loose ends are tied up, but in some ways the gaps in the characters lives and the changes in their situations leave you with some unanswered questions. Ultimately I enjoyed the end and the way the story wrapped up, but there were some pretty significant aspects of this chapter that I didn’t like. Set some time in the future there have been huge changes in society and communication which are intrinsic to this part of the book. Without much explanation it was hard to know if this was just a way for us to know we were in the future, or was the author trying to make a point. Perhaps this was this Egan’s stab at 1984 or Brave New World? It did feel as if it was a criticism of the development of social media and mobile technology, a future where everyone shares their most personal thoughts with everyone one else. Odd for a book which has used social media to promote it. Hey ho.
It certainly doesn’t feel like an insight into the US music business or celebrity. The writing is clever, but there’s not enough detail to the story and each of the episodes only provides a snapshot into the characters’ lives.
Score – 3/5