Monday, April 18, 2011
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.