Tuesday 30 June 2015

Visit from the Goon Squad

A review that has been in the draft folder for weeks so I just need to write something and move on ... not that I didn't love this book, just that I have been lacking the energy to put fingers to keyboard.
I picked up 'A Visit From the Goon Squad' by Jennifer Egan when I was visiting Monkey in London. It is a collection of interlocking stories that covers the lifetime of the central group of young people who gather in the first chapter. Each time you have to make a small mental adjustment to see who is involved and where in time the events are taking place; often years have flashed past in the turn of the page and they are all but unrecognisable. I liked it because of the different voices and the immediate way she manages to involve you on each new chapter; despite the ups and downs  that life throws at them the characters are identifiable and I enjoyed the unfolding of the separate paths. She jumps around from tense to tense; sometimes things are described very immediate as they happen, then other times it is reminiscences, and then others she lurches wildly into the future describing in a short paragraph the long term outcomes of a particular event. I really love the chapter written by a teenage daughter in the form of charts and diagrams, it gave her a very distinctive voice. I didn't note down any quotes, which is unusual, and mostly signifies that I was engaged with the story more than the intricacies of the prose.
I pulled this one out almost at random, it gives a picture of their teenage days:

"On warm days Scotty plays his guitar. Not the electric he uses for Flaming Dildos gigs, but a lap steel guitar that you hold a different way. Scotty actually built this instrument: bent the wood, glued it, painted on the shellac. Everyone gathers around; there's no way not to when Scotty plays. One time the entire J.V. soccer team climbed up from the athletic field to listen, looking around in their jerseys and long red socks like they didn't know how they got there. Scotty is magnetic. And I say that as someone who does not love him.
The Flaming Dildos have had a lot of names: the Crabs, the Croks, the Crimps, the Crunch, the Scrunch, the Gawks, the Gobs, the Flaming Spiders, the Black Widows. Every time Scotty and Bennie changed the name, Scotty sprays black over his guitar case and Bennie's bass case, and then he makes a stencil of the new name and sprays it on. We don't know how they decide if they should keep a name, because Bennie and Scotty don't actually talk. But they agree on everything, maybe through ESP. Jocelyn and I write all the lyrics and wok out the tunes with Bennie and Scotty. We sing with them in rehearsal, but we don't like being onstage. Alice doesn't either - the only thing we have in common with her." (p.43-44)

There is something faintly nostalgic about the story, or you feel that way by the time you reach the end, a wistful sense of what might have been, and a trying to hold on to the romantic notions of adolescence. 

Sunday 7 June 2015

Here be Dragons

Sorry Stella but I don't think this is as good a book as 'Cold Comfort Farm'. It tells the story of Nell and her move with her parents from rural penury to the urban glamour of Hampstead under the patronage of a wealthy aunt. Her father has misplaced his calling to the ministry and is suffering from depression, and while her mother potters around trying to make the best of things Nell starts a tedious job in a stifling office arranged by Aunt Peggy (Lady Fairfax) to support the family. Unlike Flora our Nell is determined to work hard, earn money, be responsible and forge a career for herself. She encounters her wayward cousin John who introduces her to the bohemian coffee bar culture, which seems to consist of a bunch of unwashed artistic writer types who sponge off their girlfriends and consider themselves somehow above paid employment. 

I think neither the title nor the description on the back represented the story very accurately; much as Nell has lived a restricted and controlled childhood, and London is certainly an unexplored territory, she enters it not in the spirit of exploration but more like a dispassionate observer. She has a very strong sense of herself and her values and at no point is she 'led astray' by the example of this gang of dissolute youth, in fact she seems to view them as objects of curiosity and remains resolutely on the outside of the social crowd. She starts playing tennis with Robert but has only friendly feelings towards him as she has developed an unacknowledged crush on the rather obnoxious John. He is so utterly self-obsessed, and nothing could tempt me to like him. He is forever going off to see someone about a job, but never gets one, and seems to assume that Nell will abide by his comings and going and be available to keep him company any time he requires it. He enjoys manipulating people and situations and sees his friends as  just there for his amusement,  delighting in their attention and being told how wonderful he is. In some ways his only saving grace is that he doesn't at least have any illusions about himself:

"'Do you know why I liked Nerina so much?' he said, after a silence in which he put a great deal of sugar into his tea. 'Because she never tried to make me any different or asked me to give her anything. She never made demands on me. I hate being asked for things; time or attention or liking. I just want to be left alone, and to have someone there when I want them.'" (p.339)

So we follow Nell as she moves from the office to a tea shop, challenging by inches the rules that have governed her life up to this point, and the assumptions of her parents about what is appropriate. The story really encapsulates the new found freedoms of the younger generation during the 50s, when money, music and sex were all suddenly much more freely available to them. I loved this description of Hampstead:
"Hampstead showed increasing signs of being given over to Bohemia; the pavements echoed with flapping sandals and the clapping of Continental clogs; there were tights and striped blue-and-white jeans to be seen loitering round the Underground station, and somehow all this seemed to Nell to be linked with the expected arrival of Nerina at The Primula next Monday evening." (p.181-2)

While it was a period of social and cultural change the old attitudes still held a lot of sway, so being a co-respondent in a divorce, or an unmarried pregnancy were still potentially devastating situations. The story was very slow compared to Cold Comfort Farm, and much as I liked Nell I really wished she would let her hair down occasionally, but you could really see her as a woman going places, taking advantage of the economic opportunities and eventually learning her lesson where the feckless John is concerned.