Friday, January 14, 2011

Here There Be Goons

Is it somehow indicative of my taste in literature that a renowned reviewer in The Washington Post would disparage the story I simply adored? (There are many excellent stories in  A Visit from the Goon Squad, and it would be a shame to miss them. Please, please read the difficult and wonderful "Out of Body.")

From The Washington Post:
"Not every leap lands with equal precision, of course. A madcap comedy involving a genocidal dictator who's eager to improve his public image strains against Egan's sophisticated wit."

Yes, indicative.

Perhaps Jennifer Egan sacrifices a few of those sophisticated darlings for the above-mentioned piece of fantastic (in every sense) comedy, but nuggets remain of her rippling themes of idealism, loss and regret, frustration, and the desire for meaningful existence encapsulated in relationships. Heartbreakingly as these themes are illustrated in other stories, they nevertheless compound to lack, over the course of the first half, a degree of realism, even to border on the absurd. Must every character shoot her or himself in the foot or head (depending on where the gun's angled)? As if the game is fixed? As if, indeed, this menacing goon squad visit is inevitable? (The metaphor is Time, and such a visit is certainly inevitable, though its fallout, I'm arguing here, may not be.)

But in "Selling the General" - the collection's sacrificial lamb, it would seem, from a literary standpoint (unless one counted the slide story, which I found both touching and a bit overkill) - these themes thumb their noses at Time's goons, who have come and gone. And may still come, but at least neither regret nor resignation frames this denouement. No plaintive snowfall of the heart makes this story sigh with elegance. "Exactly!" you might exclaim. "It is inelegant, unworthy of Egan's painstaking refinement." Ah, but the story's elegance is in its placement - it sits demurely in the middle of the book; making no lasting statement of importance with its presence that first or last position might have made; eyeballing the tragedy surrounding its purely fun, satisfying, wonderful own sense of the absurd. The flip side of the absurd. Not the real side mirroring life. Reality remains somewhere . . . should I say it? . . . in the middle.

Doubtless, Egan couldn't have pulled off "Selling the General" without the other stories as anchors to its buoyancy, but must we say because it is different, because it doesn't conform to certain constructed "literary" standards, because it looks its goons squarely in the eyes and barks a hoot of laughter, that it's inferior? Let's not. I say, let's cheer for it and love on it a little, before taking a deep breath and plunging into the second half of the book.