Sunday, July 7, 2013

Reading Journal: A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan (2010)

Another Pulitzer-winning collection of linked short stories (or "novel-in-stories"; see: Olive Kitteridge, which took the prize just two years before it), but one that seemed much less forced in its links between stories than Olivedid. It was compelling reading, as each story/section followed a different character, giving us multiple protagonists and plenty of action. I was frustrated, at first, because we don't hear from Sasha - the main character in the first story/section - for a very long time, but the result was an enjoyable yarn of a book that gave you just enough reason to believe she was coming back (and therefore, to keep reading). Plus - you may have heard - the book delivers a most notable stunt: a section told in PowerPoint slides that's absolutely devastating and that made me feel a little guilty about the way my own work leans toward minimalism. Am I only delivering the "key points" of the action? The book's dizzying but not difficult, pushing at the limits of form while still telling an entertaining story, and it's one I'll probably read again. I'm not sure I was amazed, but I can see why people think there's something special here.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Reading Journal: Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson (1923)

It's no surprise that this collection feels dated - the excesses of both the fin-de-siècle and modernism come to bear on Anderson's style, and he's not as talented a writer as those he imitates. In fact, in some stories, the action changes gears for no given reason, or the focus suddenly ends up on something entirely different than what the piece's first half was about. Some others read like clunking personal essays. And yet, the book's a worthwhile and often enjoyable read, especially given the post-Visit from the Goon Squad/Olive Kitteridge uptick in interest in the linked story collection. At its heart, Anderson's best-known book is a coming-of-age story with a commendable sense of place, telling of George Willard's youth in an isolated Ohio town. Each story is a tile in the mosaic, telling more about the environment into which George is born and his reasons for eventually leaving. It's a shame that the collection's best stories are those at the end, for to read them in isolation is to spoil the ending of the book. But not to worry, you've got me to do that for you. This passage comes from the second last one, "Sophistication":

"There is something memorable in the experience to be had by going into a fair ground that stands at the edge of a Middle Western town on a night after the annual fair has been held. The sensation is one never to be forgotten. On all sides are ghosts, not of the dead, but of living people. Here, during the day just passed, have come the people pouring in from the town and the country around. Farmers with their wives and children and all the people from the hundreds of little frame houses have gathered within these board walls. Young girls have laughed and men with beards have talked of the affairs of their lives. The place has been filled to overflowing with life. It has itched and squirmed with life and now it is night and the life has all gone away. The silence is almost terrifying. One conceals oneself standing silently beside the trunk of a tree and what there is of a reflective tendency in his nature is intensified. One shudders at the thought of the meaningless of life while at the same instant, and if the people of the town are his people, one loves life so intensely that tears come into the eyes."

Almost everything under the sun is covered in this little book: faith, idealism, living, dying, love, sex, family, social status, class, ambition, drinking and more. I'd classify "Sophistication" the pick of the litter, in which George and the woman he falls for rediscover the joy the rest of the story makes clear does not exist in Winesburg by acting as children in celebration of achieving adulthood. "Adventure" is an edgy portrait of a young woman holding out for a man who once made an advance, and "The Strength of God" is a cheeky story of a conflicted pastor who discovers he has a view into the schoolteacher's window - she of course spends a lot of time naked - but it's hard to judge each story on its own; when you reach the end of the final one, it's the whole group that leaves the painfully clear and affecting afterimage. It's required reading, even though it sometimes feels like it.