Sunday, 31 March 2013

Time Bandits

Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize winning A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010) is a wonderfully quirky novel comprised of thirteen interlinked short stories. The stories in the book dart about around the globe - New York, Naples, Africa, San Francisco and beyond – and cover about 40 years in the lives of various characters.

A character that is marginal in one chapter becomes the protagonist in the next. Just when you are left wondering, “I wonder what happened to…” you find a passing reference to someone at a different point in his or her life. It does take a bit of getting use to and perhaps it is best to just read each chapter as an individual story, then step back when you are finished and marvel at the whole.

You begin by reading about 30-something kleptomaniac Sasha on a date in New York, and then you don’t see her again until you read a story about teenaged Sasha in Naples. Later you learn more about Sasha through reading the PowerPoint journal of her twelve-year-old daughter Ally. In between you meet: Sasha’s boss, music producer Bennie Salazar struggling to make a connection with his son; philanderer Lou Kline and his string of broken lovers and children; Bennie’s wife Stephanie who hides her friendships; could-have-been actress Kitty Jackson; tragic Rob, Sasha’s close college friend; and many more.

There is great humour in the book and I often found myself laughing out loud. My favourite story features PR Queen La Doll who is attempting a comeback after she accidentally maimed the who’s-who of New York and was knocked from her throne. She then takes on an unlikely client, a genocidal dictator, in an attempt to reinvent his image and revive her career. 

The goon squad is a reference to the thug that is time – it creeps up on us and whacks us when we aren’t looking. All the characters have issues with time – time passing them by, lost youth, aging, and the sense of what could have been had another path been taken.  The other central theme is music and the interconnection characters have with the industry makes for a fascinating soundtrack. In particular, I loved the obsession Lincoln has with great rock and roll pauses.

After reading the book I went online and found that many people had tried to draw flow charts connecting the characters and timelines to put the novel in chronological order.  Just the kind of nerdiness that I would have pursued, had others not done it for me!

Egan is a wonderful writer with a keen eye for human nature. Whether she is writing in first, second and third person narrative, she is able to get under the skin of her characters and bring them to life.  Her writing is fun and clever, but never arrogant. I can see why Egan won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Well deserved for this brilliant book. Highly recommended. 

Friday, 15 March 2013

Things that go bump in the night

While the entire world seems to be reading a Fifty Shades novel, I opted for a different kind of sex book. Mary Roach’s Bonk – The curious coupling of sex and science (2008) is all about sex.

Roach investigates the weird and wonderful world of sex research. She explores the historical attempts at enhancing pleasure and curing various dysfunctions, including those from ancient Greece, medieval times, the early 20th Century, and the work of Kinsey and Masters & Johnson.  She also shows us the advances made through modern day research using MRIs, exploratory surgeries and even sex-toy R&D labs.

Whether wading though journal articles, or attending a Scandinavian pig farm, or viewing surgical implants, the thoroughness of Roach’s research reveals a degree of commitment that she throws herself into the subject. Literally - Roach and her devoted partner Ed volunteered to participate in research by subjecting themselves to ultrasound scanning while performing to assist researchers to learn more about the internal sexual anatomy.

There is humour throughout, in both the bizarre circumstances and Roach’s vivid descriptions. I will never look at a gooseneck lamp again without thinking of a certain Taiwanese surgical procedure. She makes science fun and you can’t help but laugh out loud at some of the nonsensical absurdities that have been presented as medical research.

Roach inserts herself in the book with witty asides and footnotes. This worked well in her book Stiff – The curious lives of human cadavers (2003), but occasionally works less well here. Sometimes these are distracting or obvious smirks, that could have been removed allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions.

This book should come with a warning. Roach is not shy about asking the questions we are curious about but would be too embarrassed to ask. Her descriptions of certain procedures and tests will leave you crossed-legged and shuddering. There is creepiness and ickiness. So beware, once you know it you can never un-know it.

My review of Roach’s equally fascinating, hilarious and enlightening book Stiff – The curious lives of human cadavers is also on this blog.