Can a reader, even a good reader, ruin a good book?
I believe so. I believe that we enter into a contract of sorts when we take up a work of literary fiction: we will commit, we will pay attention, we will read steadily. If we break that contract, we are likely to be rewarded with a lesser book.
The other day I asked my partner how she was enjoying her Elizabeth Bowen novel, to which she replied that it was okay, but not as good as the last Bowen she had read. My partner is chronically busy, often hurrying from one deadline to the next, and her reading of Bowen, I am guessing, had been fragmented, with a few pages read here and a few there. Then her schedule eased for a couple of days and her reading intensified. “I was wrong,” she told me. “This is a really good book.”
We all do it at some point. That’s just life. But some books are more damaged by neglect than others. A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010) by Jennifer Egan is an example. Read in halts and starts, it is a series of vaguely connected short stories. Read carefully, its interrelated narratives form a web, a time web, that is. Time is a thief. Time is the goon. The central (recurring) character is Sasha, who is also a thief. We think, as the novel progresses, about what is stolen and recovered and what is unrecoverable
In the last chapter a character is trying to find his wife and daughter in a crowd. At last he sees them: “They were too far away for Alex to reach them, and the distance felt irrevocable, a chasm that would keep him from ever again touching the delicate silk of Rebecca’s eyelids, or feeling, through his daughter’s ribs the scramble of her heartbeat….In desperation, he T’d Rebecca, pls wAt 4 me, my bUtiful wyf, then kept his zoom trained on her face until he saw her register the vibration, pause in her dancing, and reach for it.” As I read this passage, I felt that word “irrevocable” itself vibrate, and I recalled the line about Big Ben striking in London in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, that most potent discourse in literature about time that I know: “First, a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable.”
Egan plays with literary forms and disrupts expectations. It’s not a game, but it can be playful, and sense is often made on a level just below cognition. One of my favorite moments in the novel came in the penultimate chapter, when the PowerPoint pages (created by a 12-year-old girl) enact a textual “pause” in the novel itself as the young narrator attempts to decipher her brother’s fascination with deliberate pauses in popular music. The PowerPoint graphs are oddly touching, as we watch her analysis develop. Pauses are not, we understand, empty. Silence reconstitutes the surrounding sound.