{time’s a goon}

I MOVED. Moving is exhausting and leaves no time for anything else and I’m never allowed to do it again. Short-term, the best thing that has come of moving so far is that it left me too exhausted to do anything after work today but take a four-hour nap and finally finish Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. Now I’m not-at-all-sarcastically thrilled to spend my Friday night updating my blog and pondering the hell didn’t I read this earlier?

Besides being able to check it off my bookmark list of Pulitzer fiction winners, I’m super happy I finally read AVftGS because it was just really, really good. Contradictingly to what I’d originally thought, it’s not really a novel, but a collection of short stories that center around (a LOT) of shared characters. Seriously—there are a lot of them. I didn’t, but I really wanted to make some kind of flowchart to keep track of them. Instead, I’ll probably just read the book over and over again, because it was that good.

I think the main reason I found this collection of stories so good was that they constantly surprised me and somehow simultaneously really made sense. Each chapter is a snippet, a vignette, a moment out of someone’s life that might qualify as a “main character,” or might just be married to a “main character,” or might just have been casually referenced in passing in an earlier chapter and oh look! now they have their own chapter. There’s no immediately discernable rhyme or reason to the order of chapters: they span countries, decades, some even moving into the future. The only thing that seems to concretely unite them is a shared appreciation for music, identity, and time itself, which if that isn’t one of the vaguest things I’ve ever written here, I’m not really sure what is.

In an attempt to collect my thoughts, I’m going to result to one of my weakest (and yet most frequented) blog ploys: the bulleted list.

  • If I wasn’t completely emotionless/my tear ducts worked, I would’ve cried reading “Out of Body.” Love love love.
  • Any author who can tell a thoughtful, emotional, powerful story using PowerPoint slides (“Great Rock and Roll Pauses by Alison Blake”) is worthy of admiration, I think.
  • If I had to decide, I suppose that Sasha—the focus of the opening chapter, “Found Objects”—would be the best candidate for “main character,” by virtue of the fact that she had the most major appearances in other stories and seemed to be the lynchpin of many relationships. I did not find Sasha to be the most interesting character or the one I liked the best, but she was both interesting and favorable. That factor, I think, accounted most for the surprise I mentioned earlier: Each character is mentioned in passing or not even at all, and then all of a sudden they have their own chapter and (after you’ve perplexedly paged back through earlier chapters to try to remember why that name sounds so familiar and where you heard it before) they suddenly have the most interesting story in the world and you can’t quite remember if the whole book isn’t actually about only them.

All bulleted-listing/sleep-deprived ranting aside, I really really do recommend this one. It left me fulfilled, sad, wondering, and anxious—all in the best possible way.

Time’s a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?

{lone star}

I’m not good at comparing things. That was always my biggest struggle with literature assignments in school: “Describe the similarities between Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” Uhh… depression? I didn’t like them? (Actually, Meta was alright.) Mmk.

So—here’s my best stab for comparisons to You Know When the Men Are Gone. If you like The Things They Carried, you’ll probably like this. Is that just because they’re both short-story collections about war? Or just because I liked both of them? Probably.

Yes, YKWtMAG is a short-story collection about war. But unlike TTTC, they’re not stories about a warzone. With one exception (“Camp Liberty”), the stories deal with domestic settings, centering around the army base of Fort Hood, Texas (a real base where author Siobhan Fallon lived while her husband was on two tours of duty). The stories’ main characters all either wives or soldiers home from Iraq for various reasons.

The underlying theme throughout all eight stories are romantic relationships during wartime. The stories themselves are anything but romantic in its traditional sappy form; Fallon pulls no punches in addressing the hard-hitting problems facing army couples during wartime. A 20-year-old is permanently disabled by a bomb and faces his wife’s abandonment on his return home. Waiting for her husband’s tour to be over, a woman babysits the children of a neighbor while their foreign-born mother carries on an affair and cries for her homeland. A cancer survivor’s children run away while her husband faces the stigma of remaining on base. (All the couples are composed of a man in the army and a woman in Fort Hood.)

This book is short. The stories are short. And yet Fallon manages to pack tremendous emotional range into each one, making every word count, saying nothing that doesn’t absolutely need saying. Some of the characters’ reactions to their circumstances are described so minimally that I found myself wondering about them, but completely in a positive way (not “Geez, I’m so confused by this,” but “Oh my God—I wonder what’s going through her head right now. Hey… what would be going through my head right now if that was me?”).

Fallon’s writing is simultaneously delicate and forceful, as are the issues she writes about. There’s no good answer for how a man can return to his wife’s normal life after the atrocities he’s seen at war. There’s no fair solution to a woman who feels abandoned and lost in her everyday life without her partner. While having absolutely no personal experience with anything covered in YKWtMAG, I felt strongly connected to the characters and deeply interested in the difficulties they faced.

So, now that my review is done, I realize that YKWtMAG and TTTC have, thematically, almost nothing in common. Oh well. You should still read both.

{smells pretty good}

At long last, today I finished A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, a 1993 Pulitzer winner by Robert Olen Butler. It’s a collection of short stories, and though quite short, it took me almost a week to read it because I fell in the habit of reading just one or two stories every night before bed. All of the stories are told from the point of view of a Vietnamese person—almost all born in Vietnam, although at least one is the American-born child of Vietnamese parents—now living in Louisiana, which I was unaware had a large Vietnamese population.

The stories were all very good—Butler’s prose has a lyrical quality, which worked well with the various first-person narratives. The stories have a collective theme of culture differences between Vietnam and the United States. I was quite impressed that each story had a different voice, in keeping with the different narrators, but still held similarities to each other, reflecting the Vietnamese culture, traditions, and values.

Recognizing that Butler was not a Vietnamese name, I did a little more biographical digging than I normally do for leisure reading. Turns out that Butler served in the Vietnam War for two years, during which he developed a great affinity for the Vietnamese, and was a professor of creative writing when AGSfaSM was published.

Now, given that I have absolutely no experience or qualifications whatsoever to put forth an opinion on this, I found myself wondering at the possibility of writing from the point of view of a foreign culture. I mean, obviously most narrators are going to be different from their authors, but I think it’s significantly more difficult to adopt a completely different cultural outlook in your writing. As I read, I found myself wondering: Are these accurate representations of Vietnamese people? How did Butler use his own experiences with Vietnamese and Vietnamese-Americans in his writing? How would someone who is Vietnamese and currently living in Louisiana interpret these stories?

Please note that I in no way mean to discredit Butler’s writing; as I stated previously, I have absolutely no credibility in this line of questioning. I merely believe that these questions are inevitable for the average reader.

What do you think? How does a writer establish credibility when writing from a foreign perspective? What books have you read that raised similar questions?