Monday, April 18, 2011

Wondrous Goons

I've been swooning over Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad for a while now.  It's no longer my private recommendation--my "sleeper" candidate for best book of 2010 (and, to be fair, it was everyone else's sleeper candidate in that category well before it was mine.  That is, well before I got around to Goon Squad, the secret that the book was a secret success had very much gotten out).  By now, everyone knows it's a book that deserves to be torn apart, read multiple times in multiple directions: one whose parts can seem momentarily greater than the whole, but only momentarily.  And this is great news for a lot of reasons that involve a lot of things--particularly the opening up of the novel as a form, and the generation of dialogue about the future of fiction making.  But I wasn't so much thinking about the future as the past.

Something caught me off guard when looking at the list of past winners.  I was suddenly reminded of A Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which won the prize in 2008.  [NB: I devoured this book, an inscribed copy was given to me by one of my closest friends for Christmas and I spent two afternoons gobbling it].  Junot Diaz's novel does not experiment with form as much as does Egan's book.  But both novels offer meditations on the individual's relationship with history--considerations of how we are all tethered to larger collective narratives of culture, race, class, and desire.  And okay, sure, this is the case for a lot of novels.  But the thing that made me pause when thinking about the two books together is their shared depiction of characters who fight against the "goons" of history.  ABWLOOW and AVFTGS merit a paired reading because they describe history in a way that postmodern authors suggested was no longer possible.

You can say a lot of things about history in these novels, and one of those things is that they, well, say a lot of things about history.  They're not ahistorical ramblings about the plight of characters in a hyper-mediatized, post-nation-state, post-capitalist order.  They're books that think very seriously about the effects of history on people, and the ways that consciousness is formed in part by the effort of those people to fight/go with/learn from/endure/and understand history.

For Diaz, history's sinister reach manifests itself in the first pages as fuku, the curse placed on Hispanola on the occasion Europe's arrival in the Americas.  Fuku wears a lot of hats over the course of Dominican history.  America's occupation?  Fuku.  The DR's murderous dictator Trujillo?  Fuku.   Ultimately, we are left to wonder whether fuku even has something to do with the fate of the novel's beloved ur-nerd Oscar.  History moves unidirectionally.  The past--the invasion of the Europeans--reaches into the present.

In Egan's novel, individuals seem more caught up in webs of history than affected by the singular passage of time.  The Goons?  Well, they're time, catching up with characters in numerous ways.  But throughout the novel, we are shuttled not only back and forth through time (Diaz jolts us in a similar way); rather we are told the future fates of characters in the present.  We are given narratives of individuals, and then told their entire back stories in a single sentence.  Egan forces us to flip back and forth to realize how characters are connected to one another--how chance encounters can happen to two individuals with unrelated histories hurtling toward one another, as well as how chance encounters can set individuals on totally different paths.

The point here is that, in these two Pulitzer winners, we get a distinct sense that it is possible in novels to explore the individual's constant subjugation to the forces of history.  Maybe we're not post-historical or ahistorical or even hysterical (to use James Wood's famous terminology) about our relationship to history and reality.  Maybe we're just subject to it, and it's part of the novelist's contemporary responsibility to inject history into fiction in new forms.  These books share a concern about what comes after the postmodern assertion that the present has collapsed on itself.  We don't live only in the present.  Maybe that was always just a convenient lie to make for some interesting and extremely aggravating and difficult literature.  But now it's possible that we have to deal with the consequences of ignoring history for so long.


  1. So smart to link these two! I really see the parallels/compliments now, like a literary wine and cheese pairing.

  2. Somehow I missed this post, but I'm glad I found it.

    I'm wondering, though, if the examples you gave are actually examples of the authors pointing to the very thing you're talking about. In other words, to account for the past by saying "Fuku," or "time's a goon" is really just another way of ignoring history because it gives characters plausible deniability. It wasn't my fault, it was the curse--a "convenient lie" I tell myself so as not to deal with the consequences.

    Which isn't to say that I disagree with you (because both books are dripping with history and pretty clearly commenting on the failures of pomo), but rather that "time's a goon" is merely one explanation for how we get from A to B--an explanation we must overcome. By the end of "Goon Squad" we see characters trying to take control of the present by changing their understanding of the past.

    I just spent way too much time thinking about this.

  3. Okay so I think I see what you're saying here, but let me know if I'm off base: Essentially, we run roughshod over history by reducing it (to fuku, to goonishness, etc), and thereby do injustice to the actual chain of cause and effect that constitute the historical present. In other words, we lose sight of objective narrative flow. "That's not how it actually works!" we might cry.

    Or something like that.

    I think you're totally right about the end of Goon Squad--and really, of Oscar Wao too. In both cases, we see characters trying to exert their individual agency against history, to varying results. Is Oscar a romantic hero at the end or is he a ridiculous and unnecessary casualty of fuku, for example?

    The point I want to make, however, rests more in the fact that characters in these novels at least grapple with history as a kind of narrative--and not merely as a constellation of randomized events. Even when they use these narratives in an attempt to excuse themselves from the responsibility to respond to history's demands, the history is there. It demands engagement.

    Maybe. I think I wrapped myself into a knot here. Someone help?

  4. I'm wrapped in the same knot. It's a good knot though.

    I'm with you on your main point, I guess my issue is that the examples you chose are, in my opinion, ways of avoiding grappling with history. But, I mean, really that's just me quibbling.

    You're right, though, watching the characters grapple with history is exciting (and beautiful. and sad) to watch. And I think the primary difference between "Goon Squad" and say, "Hopscotch," is precisely this notion of history as a force to be reckoned with.

    Anyway, we should finish this at a bar.