Friday, May 27, 2011

The Goons of Time

By Sheilah Zimpel
Contemplating the sands of time? Wondering how you got here, to be a woman or man of a certain age? Surrendering dreams of your younger self, or pulling old ones off the shelf? What mementos (or memento moris) do you like to massage, and why?
The hands of time clap for no one. (Except on “Glee” this week. Remember being kissed like that? Time does stop.)
If you like to finger such time-warping ideas, read this year’s Pulitzer-winning novel, “A Visit from the Goon Squad” by Jennifer Egan. In a perfect postmodern construction, through fascinating characters she dismantles who we once were and who we are now, how one points to another. The best fiction is supposed to be both surprising and inevitable feeling at once, and Egan understands the psychology of us, how to pull a thread and the story comes out, both mysterious and yet always known. We are oxymorons to the nth degree (how else to define the capacity to be both surprising and yet inevitable?).
Her story is not linear or chronological, and hence challenging and rewarding, reading like a collection of interrelated short stories, each fulfilling in its own right as character studies or story lines. But then characters reappear at different times in their lives, and minor ones star in later chapters. It’s left up to you to connect the dots. One chapter is done in “slides” from the perspective of an autistic child; the insights are startling, and remind me of the late David Foster Wallace’s essays, the ones full of footnotes.  
Don’t read this novel quickly. Let time go by. We may fade with age, but our youth is writ large all over us. We have fascinating stories behind our years, both wise and wet behind the ears.
Last year’s Pulitzer went to Elizabeth Strout (on faculty at my alma mater Queens U in Charlotte) for “Olive Kitteridge,” a very different novel and writer than Egan. Strout’s novel is a true collection of interrelated short stories, and fabulous reading.
Try these on the beach this summer, and get lost in some time passages. Who says summer reading has to be trash?

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