Unbeknownst to me, I scheduled twin books side-by-side on my booklist: A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan and One on One by Craig Brown.
Fraternal twins, of course. They have their differences, which are substantial: fiction versus non-fiction, experimental versus painstakingly structured. Yet their similarities are eery. The way each of the characters are connected by chance encounters which leave lingering impressions upon their lives. Chapters jumping backwards and forwards in time. Separate pearls of stories strung along a single strand, fusing to create a common message about the way we live our lives.
A Visit From the Goon Squad
Another week, another brilliant book.
Goon Squad is a story about time. "Time's a goon, right?" Jennifer Egan explores how it slips away from us; how one moment can mean everything, or nothing, or both. How we can torture ourselves with "what could have been"; how our pasts shape us. How we can start over, but most of us don't, haunted by shadows of our old selves, remnants lingering from times gone by.
Lives are simply a matter of getting from A to B. "We know the outcome, but we don't know when, or where, or who will be there when it finally happens. It's a suicide tour." It's what happens in the middle that matters.
Egan also writes about gaps and silences. Her characters, despite their love for each other, are separated by fear and awkwardness; culminating in misunderstanding and words unsaid. Sasha and Rob; Lincoln and Drew; Jules and Kitty; Stephanie and her next-door neighbour, their impression of each other ever-obscured by the slats of the fence that divides their lives.
Susan turned to him and suddenly said, "Let's make sure it's always like this.".. because she'd felt the passage of time.
But eventually a sort of amnesia had overtaken Susan; her rebellion and hurt had melted away, delinquered into a sweet, eternal sunniness that was terrible in the way life would be terrible, Ted supposed, without death to give it gravitas and shape... it came to him that Susan had forgotten how things were... she'd forgotten and was happy... and while all of this bolstered his awe at the gymnastic adaptation of the human mind, it also made him feel his wife had been brainwashed. By him.
One on One
One on One is a daisy-chain of encounters between famous people. There are 101 chance meetings, each told in exactly 1001 words, totalling 101, 101 words, beginning and ending with one Mr Adolf Hitler.
The short stories are all true to life (Brown lists his sources at the end) and, naturally, have diverse outcomes...
from the funny (an elderly Bertrand Russell trying to seduce his beautiful young neighbour, actress Sarah Miles),
to the the awkward (Queen Elizabeth II's dutiful final visit to her dying uncle, the Duke of Windsor),
to the disappointing (The Beatles' long-awaited first meeting with their idol, a reluctant Elvis Presley),
to the murderous (Gorky's mysteriously swift death, purported to be at Stalin's hand),
to the heartwarming (the friendship between Mark Twain and Helen Keller),
to the desperately sad (Oscar Wilde, alone and penniless in Paris).
We learn about the real people behind the renowned facades. They are quirky, selfish, charming and shy. Some of the things these people do (and get away with because they are who they are) is downright bizarre. Many lives are not as happy as they seem on the surface. Yet what we learn - and what we knew all along - is that all of these famous faces are human, just like us. They are multi-faceted; they have flaws and fears, along their more favourable attributes: grace, talent, charisma, work ethic, cool factor, good looks. Their lives may have taken place in the public eye, but they are plagued by fallibility. We all are.
To find out more about the book, you can read an article by Craig Brown in The Guardian here.