Saturday, August 18, 2012

Coming to get you

More confessions from Lee about her musical ignorance (see Miles).  Popular music is my worst category -- well, maybe second worst, after American Presidents -- on Jeopardy.  I'm not a sophisticated listener in any way whatsoever, preferring those artists who produce something that I can sing along with.  When people mention various groups or music genres, I nod, but mostly have absolutely no idea to whom or what they are referring.  I have not purchased music in any form for years (this last can be directly related to when I began listening to audiobooks).  So, the ins and outs of the music business outlined in Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad were pretty obscure; fortunately, this amazing book is about people, people who are struggling with the realization that they are getting old (I can really relate to this!) while the world stays young around them. It was terrific.

According to the internet and the people whose thoughts about Goon Squad are posted there, this book is about a music producer named Bennie Salazar and his long decline from top banana at his own record company (the memorably named Sow's Ear) to someone who served excrement sandwiches to the moguls at the mega-media corporation who bought him out and began producing ... well, shit.  But this book isn't about Bennie any more or less than it's about the other characters whose stories are told here.  Egan begins Goon Squad by introducing us to Bennie's ace assistant (and kleptomaniac), Sasha, but each chapter after that riffs off of a character met previously (so Chapter 2 is Bennie's story, Chapter 3 flashes back to Bennie as a teenager and introduces the producer who mentored his career, etc.). I believe that Egan wrote the chapters as individual short stories and then pulled them together into what she refers to as a "concept album."

Now, what I know about concept albums comes from Wikipedia, but goodness, I loved her characters.  Sasha, whose youthful wildness belies what the Goon Squad turns her into; Dolly, a publicist whose meteoric crash forces her into some unhealthy business relationships; Scotty, a one-album wonder who attempts -- with Bennie's help -- to make a comeback; Bennie's brother-in-law the rock-and-roll journalist and possible rapist; the totally creepy Lou who gets his desserts (justly or not); and brilliantly, the next generation: Sasha's daughter and Dolly's daughter, and the daughter of another character take us into an uncertain future. Once you grasp Egan's concept (that this is not a straight-through story), you just want to keep going because the characters lives are so astonishingly vivid.

I confess that I did read up on this book before listening, and it helped immensely. I knew going in that it was going to head off in unexpected directions (including the famous PowerPoint chapter), so I was able to relax and just listen. I did have one or two moments when I needed to remember who someone was, but Egan always took a natural moment to tell me.

Goon Squad doesn't seem like a natural candidate for audio, which likes forward momentum and conventional plotting, but I thought it was an excellent audiobook. The narrator, Roxana Ortega, was in complete command of her material. Each chapter in the book has a distinct feel, and Ortega captured this in her reading. One is written as if it were a snide Rolling Stone-ish article about a starlet, another in an extremely depressed second person (I wasn't sorry when that one ended). The PowerPoint piece is handled brilliantly -- a sound effect of a slide carousel moving from slide to slide tells you when our narrator has shown a new slide. Ortega creates individual characters with subtlety -- often just a deeper voice for a male character, but they are consistent and distinctive without being exaggerated.

I'm sure I tossed this over to the audiobook want-to-read-it list when it won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011 (the last one to win since no winner was selected this year). It's also my second Pulitzer-winning-collection-of-interlinked-short-stories-previously-published-in-The-New-Yorker in a year. And let me digress once more by linking to a New Yorker blog post where a playlist is suggested for each chapter of Goon Squad (of course, I don't know most of these songs, but I like the idea).  [And back to why I listened:]  I thought it would be "literary" (i.e., challenging to read), and I like to listen to these. I don't think that would have been necessary here, but I'm glad I listened anyway.

[Egan's central metaphor is that aging (or perhaps, more accurately, just continuing to live on) is the goon squad, the hired thugs who come to beat you up. The internet tells me that goon initially meant simpleton, personified in the 20th century (although the meaning is way older) by a Popeye character named Alice the Goon, who is pictured. This image came from the Popeye Wiki.]

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Narrated by Roxana Ortega
BBC Audiobooks America (now AudioGO), 2011.  10:05

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