July 20th, 2010
It’s harder, I think, to write about why you love something than to write about why you hate something. Your love, your admiration, your enthusiasm—somehow something gets lost in translating those feelings to paper.
I say this because whatever I’m trying to convey about Jennifer Egan’s staggering work of fiction, A Visit from the Goon Squad, may not come across as forcefully as I’ve hoped. In fact, I may just sound like a blathering, hyperbolic, overenthusiastic, giddy nerd. But, to put it in generically inadequate terms, I loved this novel. It blew me away. It’s still haunting me. I still can’t stop thinking about it. It’s one of those rare books that I’ll add to my all-time favorites list right away. It’s a book that I know I’ll go back to and reread, a few times, perhaps many times, throughout my lifetime. And Egan is now one of those indispensable authors (like Anne Tyler, Alice Munro, William Maxwell, to name just a few) whose every work I’ll devour. In fact, I just started The Keep, one of her earlier novels. Already I’m hooked.
But, first, back to her new book. Notice I didn’t call A Visit from the Goon Squad a novel. Nor did I call it a collection of stories. It’s more like a collection of linked stories. But even that doesn’t do it justice. So maybe “novel” is the best term, because the book holds together like one—a sprawling yet intimate work, ambitious without sacrificing the heartbreaking humanity that often gets lost in such far-reaching material. It manages to say something about the world we live in, but it’s also filled with decidedly human, real people. Egan, in crafting this powerful assemblage, never sacrifices character to make a point about the way we live now. But she truly does, more than any book I’ve read in a while, reveal, through a very human lens, the way we live now.
A Visit from the Goon Squad starts with a story about Sasha, a young woman living in New York who has a penchant for stealing things. The next story is about Bennie, Sasha’s record-producer boss, set a few years earlier before he fired Sasha. Then we’re transported back to 1979, in the Bay Area, in one of the novel’s most affecting “chapters,” “Ask Me If I Care.” This time our narrator is Rhea, a freckled girl who is in love with Bennie—yes, the Bennie we’ve already met as an adult. Here Benne is a mohawked teenage member of a wannabe punk bad, an enigmatic young man who only has eyes for Alice. But Alice is in love with his bandmate, Scotty. Then there’s Jocelyn, Alice’s sexy biracial friend, who’s having an affair with a far-older man named Lou, a hot-shot record producer. We next see Lou, five years earlier, in yet another brilliant, devastating chapter called “Safari.” “Safari” is audacious and heartbreaking, featuring these sweeping flash-forwards that shouldn’t work but do, to devastating (and sometimes humorous) effect. Later, in yet another affecting chapter called “You (Plural),” we see Lou again, many years later, dying at home, a wreck of a man. Jocelyn and Rhea, now adults, come to his bedside to visit him. Rhea has emerged from adolescence unscathed; the freckled girl who always thought she’d be invisible to boys and men is the mother of three children. Jocelyn hasn’t been so lucky. She’s a recovering drug addict, angry that Lou had robbed her of her youth, robbed her youth of its innocence. You’ll also see Scotty again later in the book, in a few stories, and of course Bennie, who (along with Sasha) might come closest to being labeled the central protagonist of Goon Squad, though this is debatable.
Summarizing these stories doesn’t really do the book justice. Some of these stand alone quite powerfully. In fact, most could stand alone (and have stood aone in magazines and journals) just fine. But the stories hold so much more power taken together as a fragmentary whole. In a great interview recently in Bomb Magazine, Egan said that she viewed the book as a Chuck Close painting, “in that every small square was its own individual work, and yet they all added up to something bigger.” I think this is an apt, wonderful description.
A story later in the book, called “Out of Body,” features a young Sasha, but she is not the main character in this piece. Her college friend Rob is. Another character is Drew, Sasha’s boyfriend. They are all students at NYU, passing through a drug-fueled Saturday that ends in tragedy. The story is written in the second person—though pay careful attention to how Egan shifts this point of view at the very end of the story, to, well, I’ll say it again, devastating effect. Perhaps this story moved me so because it’s set in 1992, the same time I was in college (though not in New York). Or maybe it holds special appeal because, over the last few powerful pages, Rob and Drew walk down the East River, following a path which is basically where I jog these days. Or maybe it’s because Rob is one of those guys who, like me, loved women, wanted so badly to be in love with one (in his case, Sasha), but who deep down knows something is slightly off. Because though Rob loves Sasha so much that it hurts him, he’s clearly in love with Drew (“If you could see Drew naked, even just once, it would ease a deep, awful pressure inside you”). He loves men, lusts after men, and yet he can barely bring himself to acknowledge this. Rob, perhaps more than any other character in the book, is the one who has haunted me the most (though Rolf, Lou’s son, comes a close second).
Late in the story, Rob says, “Let’s remember this day, even when we don’t know each other anymore.” Bix, one of their friends, a grad student who spends a lot of time messaging other grad students on his computer, which he says is the wave of the future (remember, this is 1992, and email—I know it’s hard to believe—was in its infancy, the habit of a select few people), says, “Oh, we’ll know each other forever . . . The days of losing touch are almost gone.” So true. I can only think of a handful of people I’m not longer in touch with, a few odd souls who haven’t popped up on Facebook.
I read “Out of the Body” while taking the bus to work, and managed to finish it right at my stop. But I was so gutted by it, so crushed—but also so enraptured by the brilliant writing and poignancy and relevancy of it—that I almost couldn’t get out of my seat. But like most of the stores in Goon Squad, it has added power because by this point we know Sasha already. The story later gains more power and poignancy, because years later, after Sasha and Drew lose each other—after losing Rob—we see Sasha as a mother, living in the desert with her husband, who happens to be Drew. This later story, “Great Rock and Roll Pauses,” told as a Power Point presentation, is narrated by Sasha and Drew’s daughter Allison. A Power Point presentation as a story, you ask? If it sounds gimmicky and awful, trust me, it isn’t. It works to marvelous effect. What can’t Egan do brilliantly, I am starting to wonder?
And what about the title? What is the goon squad? Well, to paraphrase what a few characters say a few times in the book, time’s a goon. It sneaks up on you and leaves you feeling beaten up and battered. Time marches on. Sure, it’s not a new point or idea, but no one has made that reality more deeply felt than Egan has in A Visit from the Goon Squad.
I fear, perhaps, that I’ve overhyped this book. But I wouldn’t be alone in that. It has gotten ravishing praise from critics all over the place. So, as they say, don’t take my word for it. But read this book, now, soon! You won’t be sorry.
I’ll be interested to see how this book fares in award season. For my money, I say give Egan the National Book Award—and, hell, why not, the Pulitzer too! But a book like this doesn’t need an award. It will live on, I’m certain, as one of the great works of our newish century.
June 17th, 2010
The other day a friend of mine shared a link with me. It was a blog post by a young man named Brent, a 15-year-old who lives in Kentucky. And it’s the kind of story that makes all this writing business feel worth it. Here’s part of what Brent wrote:
Destinie and I spent our days in Borders and on Amazon.com looking for gay characters. . . . I found one that seemed like what we were looking for. What They Always Tell Us by Martin Wilson. I read it. Then Destinie read it. We talked about. And cried about it. People really write about this stuff? I thought. It felt . . . great. Imagine that you are an alien on your own planet. And imagine you find out that there are more aliens, just like you, on your planet. And imagine what it would be like–to know that someone knows what it’s like. What you’re going through.
Clearly, I was touched! Here was my book, making an actual difference to someone. I was floored. I don’t hear stories like this every day. But when I do, it reminds me why I write–and why I write for young people in particular.
But go read the whole post. Brent goes on to talk about how he turned to his school library for more LGBT books and couldn’t find a single one. In fact, the librarian told him that if he wanted to read “inappropriate books, then go to the bookstore.” Nice…
Fortunately, most librarians I’ve come across are NOT like this person in Kentucky. They recognize the need for these books and do all they can to put such books in the hands of the teens who need them. Especially in places like Kentucky, where Brent lives, and Alabama, where I grew up with no gay role models of any kind. Okay, times were quite different back in the late eighties/early nineties. But if I had come across a LGBT book back then, it surely would have given me some comfort. And even though it’s 2010 and we’ve come a long way, baby, people like the librarian in Kentucky are out there, preferring to turn their backs on the kids who need them, all because they have some phony “morality” stick stuck up their butts.
So, I applaud Brent and his friend Destinie and all the other wonderful teens out there taking a stand and for demanding more LGBT books. And I applaud them for refusing the be invisible. They have real courage. You can follow their blog here. I plan to. And I applaud Janet Trumble for posting Brent’s guest post at her blog, Pinched Nerves. Follow them both!
June 6th, 2010
Every now and then I get wonderful emails from people who’ve read my novel. And often these people ask me if I am going to write a sequel.Never say never, as the old adage goes. But let me go out on a limb here and say that I will NEVER write a sequel to What They Always Tell Us.
Why? It isn’t that I am sick of the characters. It isn’t that I have no interest in what their futures might hold. It’s just that I left them where I wanted to leave them, on the cusp of the rest of their lives. Lives that may have many ups and downs but, in the end, may not be dramatic enough to deserve a new story.
Because that’s the problem with sequels: they demand new drama, new conflicts. And often such drama and conflict is unearned. It feels fake and manufactured–and of course, it is. Manufactured to prop up a thing that shouldn’t really exist in the first place.
Some books and movies, clearly, merit sequels. The brilliant Hunger Games books come to mind (I’ve yet to read Book 2, but it’s on my list!). Take a look, also, at the Star Wars movies (though I’m not a fan of the prequels). Aliens is one of my favorite movies of all time, and it is a sequel to Alien (also a favorite). But for every Hunger Games and Empire Strikes Back and Aliens, you have countless sequels that don’t make sense and are probably only made to make profits. There are almost too many examples to list. But Aliens 3 comes to mind. Unlike Aliens, this sequel was unnecessary and nearly ruined the two prior movies. This month, Bret Easton Ellis will publish a sequel to his novel Less Than Zero: Imperial Bedrooms. I am a fan of Ellis’s work, so I’ll probably give this a shot. But who knows if it will be one of those “good” sequels or one of the countless bad ones.
The Sex and the City movies also come to mind when I consider needless sequels. Yes, I consider both movies sequels to the TV show. I loved the TV show. LOVED. And I hated the first movie and refuse to see the second. Why? Because the sequels had to manufacture new drama and new conflicts that felt, well, like betrayals of the original characters. I liked where we left the girls when the TV show ended. Not happily ever after, but pretty happy, their futures somewhat certain but not entirely so. That’s okay. I for one don’t believe in absolute closure.
But the movies? Blech. They turned these once-beloved characters into overprivileged, consumeristic, unsympathetic, shrill stick figures. But the worst offense was the plot of the movie. In the first movie, Mr. Big betrayed Carrie in such an unforgivable (and unbelievable?) fashion–a plot development that arose solely out of the need for “big drama”–that when she ended up marrying him in the end it felt like the character I knew and loved had sold her soul down the river, all for a fancy Upper East Side apartment with a big closet. Fail!
Some people love sequels, and some sequels deserve that love. Overall, however, I’m not a big fan. Sequels need to be earned. The drama in them needs to feel organic, a natural outgrowth of a life. I may be beating a dead horse here, but too often sequels feel like self-indulgent an sentimental mistakes. They nearly ruin the originals you love.
So, no sequels for me, at least not for What They Always Tell Us. Maybe for a future book, for a book that merits a continuation on the story.
But what do you think about sequels? What are some sequels that work, that are deserved? And what are some of the worst offenders?
May 24th, 2010
* These mini movie reviews of teen-centric movies might become a regular feature. Bear in mind I’m not a film critic, so don’t expect Pauline Kael here. But I’ll try and give an honest assessment of my impressions.
Directed by Adam Salky, written by David Brind. Starring Emmy Rossum, Zach Gilford, Ashley Springer.
This tri-part indie grew on me. I tend to enjoy “small” movies even if they don’t really add up to anything brilliant. Such movies are still often far more interesting than most mainstream fare. This is why I often prefer foreign films. Even if they feel “slight,” I still come away thinking about them, left with impressions I rarely have after a blow-out shoot-’em-up Hollywood spectacles.
Anyway, Dare (released in 2009) follows three teenage characters: Alexa (Rossum), the pretty but uptight drama student, her nerdy and sexually confused friend, Ben (Springer), and class bad boy (and sexpot), Johnny (Gilford).
First we get Alexa’s POV, as she struggles to throw off her inhibtions, so that she can become a better actress–so that she can feel things. Then it’s on to Ben, who tosses away some inhibitions of his own, taking his long-dormant sexuality for a test ride. The most affecting, and surprising, part of the film is when we see everything through Johnny’s eyes. He’s no one-note popular guy. In fact, his story is sort of heartbreaking: the lonely popular guy who seems to have it all, yet really wants nothing more than what Alexa and Ben already have (and take for granted). The three actors do great work with a slightly undercooked script, especially Gilford, proving that his fine work in Friday Night Lights is no fluke.
The portrait of high school–popular kids versus drama geeks–felt a little trite. The movie was best when it was away from the school, where the three principal actors could negotiate their confusing and shifting relationships.
Worth a look.
May 22nd, 2010
Last weekend I had the pleasure of taking part in the amazing, awesome, superb Greater Rochester Teen Book Festival. Wow, what an event! I had heard amazing things about it before I went, but the event exceeded all my expectations. Limos, gift bags, amazing authors, amazing teen readers!
I was part of the “New Authors” panel, along with James Kennedy and Sarah Ockler. We took to calling ourselves the “newbies,” because we were surrounded by an outstanding array of established, award-winning, successful YA authors, including the truly hilarious Terry Trueman (did you know one of his books was a Printz Honor Book?), the fabulous Simone Elkeles, Ellen Hopkins, Laurie Halse Anderson, Holly Black, Vivian Vande Velde, Coe Booth, Matt de la Pena, and many many more. In fact, Vivian has posted some excellent photos from the weekend on her web site, if you want a better array than I have to offer.
It was a great way to end my few weeks as an “author,” before I head back into the cave this summer to finish my second novel. The TBF volunteers were some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. Hey, whose says the south corners the market on hospitality? Thanks to everyone at TBF for making this one of the best experiences I’ve had as an author.
I’m going to post a sampling of photos below. Enjoy!
James Kennedy and Sarah Ockler, my fellow newbies, in the Hummer Stretch Limo on the way to TBF.
Simone Elkeles and Me, in the limo.
The audience at the new authors panel. They are riveted, riveted I tell you!
James Kennedy in action
Matt de la Pena and Jennifer Smith
Me and Simone
Me and Coe Booth
May 9th, 2010
I haven’t been a great blogger, I know. But I do have some excuse: Travel. And not just casual travel. I was traveling as, well, an author. A rarity for me until recently! But I have had great fun the past month, and it’s not over. This coming weekend I am going to Rochester for the Teen Book Festival, along with true YA rock stars like Laurie Halse Anderson, Ellen Hopkins, Terry Trueman, and many more. From everything I have heard about TBF, I am in for an amazing weekend.
In April, I traveled to Huntsville, Alabama to collect my Alabama Author Award. I had such an amazing time. Not only did I get to meet the awesome librarians from Alabama, but I got to meet the other award winners: Ace Atkins, Rick Bragg, and my new favorite person in the world, Angela Johnson. I also received this snazzy plaque!
Sadly, I didn’t take any pictures of the ceremony. My Dad did, but he’s yet to master adding pics from his camera to the Internet, so for now, no pictures to post. Still, it was a great visit. I can’t praise these librarians enough, doing such great work. And I was honored to be recognized by home state. It ain’t easy championing MY book in conservative locales, so the fact that I won this award is amazing to me.
Then, last weekend, I was part of the first ever Geekfest, a new event thrown by the Gadsden Public Library. Once again, I got to bond with Angela Johnson, and also these fantastic and fun YA authors: Barry Lyga, Ginger Rue (fellow Tuscaloosan!), Chandra Sparks Taylor, Ellen Schreiber, and the legendary Chris Crutcher. I also got to eat a fried Oreo. (Yes, it’s as good and evil as you might imagine.) Geekfest, too, was great fun, and I really say hats off to Amanda, Tami, and all the vounteers who made it happen. I’m posting some pictures below. All in all, it has been fun to wear my “author” hat, after a year of basically being a hermit-like writer. I forgot how rewarding and fun it is to meet readers and fans of YA literature, not to mention my fellow authors.
Me and Ginger Rue, author of Brand-New Emily
Ellen Schreiber and Chris Crutcher (and, in the foreground, fried Oreos!)
New Authors Panel: Chandra Sparks Taylor, Ginger Rue, Martin Wilson
Me and Angela Johnson
April 11th, 2010
In this digital age, where everything is stored on a computer’s hard drive or in an iPhone or Blackberry, I still cling to an obsession I’ve had from a young age: notebooks. Slabs of paper bound between two covers. Sure, my address book is on my computer now, and I do keep a journal as a Microsoft Word document. I don’t write any of my fiction in long hand. But despite these modern flourishes, I refuse to surrender my love for good old-fashioned old-school notebooks.
I probably have over 30 notebooks that I haven’t even written in. New York, in particular, is a notebook lover’s paradise, because there are stationery shops on countless blocks. I often can’t resists stepping inside to peruse the goods. If I see one that I like, for whatever reason, I snap it up even if I don’t know what I will use it for. I’ll have a use for it one day, right?
My favorites are Moleskines. I use pocket-sized Volant varieties to jot down notes related to my novel-in-progress, in case I’m out and about an idea hits me. Plus, I can just jot stuff down willy-nilly, outside the lines, a more casual approach. The handwriting can be sloppy, the sentences incomplete. I filled up about six of these for my last novel. I’m on my second one for the latest one (a navy blue model, if you must know).
For my monthly, extensive, slightly obsessive “To Do” notebook, I use an 8.5 by 11 “Pearl Pinstripe” notebook, spiral bound. The colors of the cover are usally pastel and, frankly, kind of girly. But what I like is the paper inside, which is soft but not slick. Because I write like a left-hander with my right hand, I tend to smudge, and the paper in these notebooks is pretty smudge-resistant.
I use a larger Moleskine Volant—in lime green, currently—to jot down notes for other non-novel-related ideas. For example, a germ of an idea for a future novel, or for a short story. I also make notes about books I’m reading.
That fancy-looking navy blue notebook is a Semikolon. I love its austere elegance, with the framed box on the upper half. I keep various lists in this one, including lists of books to buy, movies to see/rent, blogs to check out, things I need to buy. It has a trusty front pocket as well, in which I store clippings to read when I’m on the go. I also have a smaller-sized Semikolon—the little red one in the picture above. I’ve not yet found a real use for this one, but it hasn’t stopped me from stocking up.
I do keep a “personal” journal on my computer. But for about ten years now I’ve also kept a writing journal in a spiral-bound Clairefontaine. Again, though the pages are slicker than the ones in my “To-Do” notebook, they mostly resist smudging. The paper is white, lined, and the size is slightly longer than the usual eleven inches. These notebooks are unique and sturdy.
I keep my assortment of unused notebooks and journals in a storage box in my closet. I was digging through one recently and found an odd notebook, with lined pages, perfect bound with a scratchy gray cover, the edges of the paper laced with red, the way some Bible’s are gilded with gold. What to use it for, I wondered? Around the same time that I discovered this forgotten purchase, I had been finding slips of paper on which I’d written or typed quotes from favorite passages in books or stories, even a few poems. So I decided to use this odd but lovely notebook as my own “Commonplace Book.” A Commonplace Book is described here, but in short MY commonplace book is one in which I inscribe passages from other writers and books that hold special appeal (and meaning) to me. I’ve collected such scraps for years, but I’m just now realizing I can put them all in one handy notebook. Auden and Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster—among many writers, I’m sure—all kept commonplace books.
Now I think I’ll go out to get some fresh air. I may even pass a stationery shop and indulge in some notebook acquiring. After all, I’ll find a use for it one day, won’t I?
March 21st, 2010
On Wednesday, my gmail account was hacked. Some crook/creep sent out a ridiculous email under my account saying that I was in Scotland, had been mugged, needed money, yada yada yada. Luckily–hopefully–no one fell for it. I eventually got my gmail account back. I still don’t know how this person managed to hack into my account. It’s very disturbing.
I was locked out of Facebook for a while, too, but managed to change my password and get back in for a while, until Facebook booted me out. Yes, sadly, my Facebook account has been “disabled.” That’s the cruel message I receive every time I try and log in. We’re going on five days now. I’ve sent about five emails to various Facebook email addresses trying to get reinstated, to no avail. It’s very frustrating–sending emails into a great and cruel void. It probably appears to some people that I have defriended them, because I no longer even show up as being a Facebook member. Hopefully I will get reinstated soon. I can’t say this experience endears me to Facebook. Gmail, on the other hand, responded promptly and judiciously to my problem. Facebook, not so much.
March 11th, 2010
I suppose I can go ahead and announce that What They Always Tell Us has won the Alabama Author Award for Young Adult literature for 2010. I found out a few months ago, and I still don’t know if there has been an “official” announcement. But the winners–in four categories–are posted on the Alabama Library Association’s web site.
I’m really excited to be honored by the fantastic librarians of my home state! It means a lot to me to be recognized in the state where I was born, where I was raised, and where I grew up. Plus, I’m excited to join a fantastic list of past winners including Watt Key, Angela Johnson, and John Green. Not bad company!
I am going to the convention next month to accept the award. I’m supposed to give a talk or a speech, so I better get to work on that!
March 10th, 2010
A recent Google Alert informed me that What They Always Tell Us had made Lighthouse Policy’s “Library Book Alert” list. Um, so what is this list all about? Well, as I soon learned, it’s a list for parents warning them about all the books out there that “indoctrinate and seduce children into homosexual behavior.” Really?? Books can do that? One can be indoctrinated? See, I grew up reading books (not to mention) watching movies and TV shows that did nothing but promote heterosexuality. Men were always kissing women, sleeping with them. Boys loved girls, listed after them even–and vice versa. So sow come I’m not a big ole straight person? So how can something simple as a book make someone gay? It can’t, of course. But it can provide comfort to a teenager feeling confused, alone, and scared.
Here’s more from the list:
There is a deliberate campaign to indoctrinate and seduce children into homosexual behavior―and our schools have become ground zero. Homosexual behavior is dangerous and is far from normal. The following are some of the propaganda books that could be in your child’s school library. Their content includes homosexuality, bisexuality, pedophilia or bestiality.
Know what books your children are reading before they become victims of the plan to make them gay.
This would kind of hilarious and easily mockable if it weren’t also tragic. Tragic in that idiots like these people still exist in the world. Tragic because there are still thousands of confused gay kids out there who are told, day in and day out, that their feelings are “evil” or “wrong.” Told that their lives are worthless unless they deny their nature. Told that they will go to some fictional hell if they don’t renounce their urges and start fearing God and dating someone from the opposite sex.
The organization that puts out this list is called the Lighthouse Policy. They are “committed to shining light on darkness. The entire sexual orientation revolution has been been built upon lies.” Funny, because their entire organization is built upon lies. And I’m here to shine the light on their darkness. People are born gay–they don’t choose it. Why would someone choose to be persecuted daily by a sometimes strident dominant population? Kids need role models, gay kids even more so. They need to know that being gay is fine, healthy, natural, and wonderful. To use a cheesy rhyme, being gay is okay.
So, please check out this list if you want to get a nearly comprehensive list of all the worthy books out their that represent gay kids and gay people and the marvelous straight people who stand by them with humor, compassion, respect, dignity, and honesty. I’m actually proud to be on this list. Just like I’m proud to be gay. You can download it here.