Thursday, July 07, 2011

Their perestroikas

When Cat Power sang “If I can make it there; I’ll make it anywhere; New York”, it’s hard to dispute the magnetic charm of this megalopolis. After reading Jennifer Egan’s marvellous fourth novel A Visit from the Goon Squad, I somehow imagined a New Yorker singing these Perfume Genius lines instead: “No one will answer your prayers until you take off that dress; No one will hear all your crying until you take your last breath.”

Remaining loyal to her Zen-like focus on urban dystopia, Ms Egan starts her latest novel in a similar vein with the lead character Sasha, who doesn’t have much to look forward to in her life. This assistant to a record executive is battling a lot of demons too: kleptomania, zero love life and the inability to break the shackles of a super-bourgeoisie life. Her boss, Bennie Salazar, a former punk rocker (of a band with the cringe-worthy title Flaming Dildos), is no better: a promising rock future is cut short, as a record executive he displays a tin ear for bands of the future, he is sexually frustrated and has an adorable son whose custodial rights he doesn’t own thanks to his infidelity.

At first glance, these characters might strike the reader as bilious New York clichés but Ms Egan lends them respect with her way with words. Mulling over his current job, Salazar realises that the world couldn’t care less about meaningful music: “The problem was digitisation, which sucked the light out of everything that got smeared through its microscopic mesh. Film, photography, music: dead. An aesthetic holocaust!”

In brutally staccato prose, Ms Egan slowly lets us piece together the fragments of back stories encompassing unhinged lust, dysfunctional families, a love triangle, teenage angst and ridiculous levels of hipsterism well past its sell-by date. Ms Egan even writes the book’s longest chapter in the form of a Power Point presentation. This is Jonathan Franzen meets early Woody Allen meets Italo Calvino without sounding like any of them.

The back stories involve Bennie, the band’s lead guitarist Scotty, and three girls, Jocelyn, Rhea and Alice. Scotty’s heart pines for Jocelyn, she is on the verge of a romantic relationship with Lou, a biggie in the music industry. Another parallel back story happens to be that of Lou and his children. Another circle in this back story Venn diagram is that of Bennie’s first wife Stephanie and her neurotic brother Jules Jones, an erstwhile celebrity journalist.

As a connoisseur of celebrity profiles I was blown away by Jones’ profile of Kitty Jackson, yet another Hollywood ingénue. Jones, who is already disenchanted with his job, writes a brutal takedown of Jackson, which might send a chill down the spine of even seasoned celebrities. “I feel slopping within me a volatile stew of anger, fear, and lust: anger because this naïf has, for reasons that are patently unjustifiable, far more power in the world than I will ever have, and once my forty minutes are up, nothing short of criminal stalking could force the intersection of my subterranean path with her lofty one,” laments Jones. Unable to bear his self-loathing and to spice up an otherwise bland interview, Jones forces himself upon Jackson, only to find himself in Rikers Island.

Ms Egan’s love for popular music is the book’s greatest asset and, no kidding, music actually wafts from every page. She captures the zeitgeist of every generation (precisely three generations) with their kind of music. A younger Bennie swoons to Iggy Pop, his older self graduates to Dead Kennedys — a clever allusion to the fact that fire-in-the-belly is inversely proportional to age. Sasha’s daughter, who is a breath away from reaching the Justin Bieber demographic, is obsessed with pauses within the songs. Did you know that Police’s “Roxanne” has a pause from 1:57 to 1:59? The infant picks up at least ten such songs. A possible PhD subject on Planet Egan! The novel ends on a really high note (pun not intended): Scotty, who slid into a cave of obscurity, finds a second lease of life when Bennie prods him to perform on a slide guitar, a performance that turns out to be bewitchingly brilliant.

Of course, Ms Egan stumbles occasionally. The chapter in which Kitty Jackson is employed to put up a human face to a “genocidal dictator” does echo the Naomi Campbell-Charles Taylor story but is hardly compelling. So is the chapter where Sasha is living her hipster life in Naples. While Ms Egan’s description of Naples was tactile I couldn’t really empathise with Sasha’s salt-of-the-earth lifestyle. That said, credit needs to be given to Ms Egan’s literary sleight of hand that ensured all these disparate stories cohered into a simple narrative.

Goon Squad can be used as a textbook at the creative writing workshops. Within one book Ms Egan uses all kinds of literary styles (sly satire, moving tragedy, even Power Point) and tenses: be it present tense or the various forms of past tense like the perfect, the imperfect, the pluperfect. In short, this book is the perfect anti-matter to the “feminine tosh” remarks made by that literary panjandrum V S Naipaul. Perhaps it’s this refusal to conform to stereotypes that earned Ms Egan the Pulitzer in fiction for Goon Squad.

Jennifer Egan
Anchor Books
342 pages; Rs 529


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