Archive for March, 2013

DAKOTA as Audio Book!

Tuesday, March 12th, 2013


The audio version of Dakota, Or What’s a Heaven For has just been released from  It is unabridged and narrated by Margaret Daly.  Readers/listeners can also access the audio book from their Amazon accounts.

A Visit from the Goon Squad

Monday, March 11th, 2013

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.



Wish You Were Here

Sunday, March 3rd, 2013

I can be a little critical of lazy readers, the ones who need the car crash or the dismemberment or the murder on the first page to catch their interest.  I understand that spectacular beginnings have to do, on the one hand, with genre (all of the above seem right at home for a murder mystery, but I like my literary fiction to ask more of me as a reader), and on the other hand, with a publishing industry that is often more concerned with sales than quality.  One of the reasons I enjoy teaching an introduction to literary studies at the university has to do with the pleasures of teaching the rewards of patience, of paying attention to the words and sentences on the page as much as to the plot that develops.

I had my (smug, you bet) attitude put to the test with Graham Swift’s Wish You Were Here (2011).  I had read a couple of Swift’s earlier novels, Waterland and Last Orders (for which he had won the 1996 Man Booker Prize), so I was looking forward to Swift’s nuanced and careful prose.  But I admit that I was well past the half-way point in this novel before I began to appreciate it, and that’s asking a LOT of the reader.  I’m glad I finished.  The cumulative effect of the novel is powerful, but it is certainly not for all markets, and only a perverse stubbornness kept me reading.

Wish You Were Here melds story and the style brilliantly, and that’s the problem as well as the achievement.  The central character, Jack Luxton, is an English farmer who sells his farm after a series of hardships, including the devastation of the family’s cattle herd, first to fears of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease), and then to an epidemic of hoof and mouth disease.  The loss of the farm signals a loss of the past and of a way of life.  When Jack learns that his brother, Tom, has been killed in Iraq, he enters into a period that is defined by obsessive rumination, in which he compulsively relives, rethinks, repeats and revises the past.  The novel works as an honest recapitulation of how a man’s mind can process loss and anxiety.  We get Jack’s thoughts that make sense and that don’t make sense, the ones that fit into a sensible world, and the ones that are without that world but no less real for him.  The thoughts, and thus the representation of those thoughts in Swift’s style, are circular and repetitive, filled with lapses, breaches, leaps, ruptures and return.

It is a painful journey, as much for the reader as for Jack, and yet, having been on that journey we understand, in a way that an easier style would not have made possible, how salvation need not be glamorous to be miraculous.