Vegetables, yarn, and yarns: all of my passions all in one place.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Waiting is the hardest part...

Summer reading is progressing a bit more quickly now. I finally got through the rest of A Visit from the Goon Squad. I was right about sticking with it. Once I finally got into the magazine article framed as a story, I loved it. The eerie thing about it was seeing the inner thoughts of an obviously disturbed man and relating to them (but not the fact that he acts on them). The thing I love about Jennifer Egan is that she can delve into every character she creates and make them utterly human. Even a would-be rapist. Even a terrorist bent on destruction who takes up pedophilia (if that intrigues you, read Look at Me). There is always something redeemable in her characters and there is always something repugnant about them as well. This is what makes them feel like real people.

Egan also has a knack for seeing the future. She predicted middle eastern terrorists attacking on US soil. She predicted the invention of social media and the popularity of reality tv. In Goon Squad, she shows us another future, one that doesn't seem very far off. In it, cell phone products are advertised for babies too young to talk. Middle schoolers don't bother with full written reports in school, instead creating powerpoint presentations, as though this is the only sort of report they ever need to make use of. I wonder how long until these predictions come to pass. I suspect the next five years might not be a stretch. A month ago I went to my son's cub scout picnic and there were almost as many children playing Angry Birds on their parent's cell phones/blackberries as there were children playing on the jungle gym. (I find this sad but unavoidable).

I always leave an Egan novel having learned something about myself and the world. This novel did not disappoint, and every chapter held a new delightful surprise, a new complex character to analyze. I wish every writer put such care into every character. Even the colonel with a past of committing genocide and atrocities comes away with  depth and, oddly,  an aspect of like-ability.

From Egan, I moved on to Ha Jin's Waiting. I definitely made it through this one faster than Egan's book, but ultimately, I didn't enjoy it nearly as much. Don't get me wrong, Jin can put a sentence together and the book did win a National Book Award. It has merit, assuredly. I just couldn't help being a little disappointed in the female characters, who were far more one-dimensional than the male characters. The way the story progresses with these half-developed women and their less-than-respectful male counterparts left me wondering if the way the plot unfolded was making a statement  about the time and country in which the novel is set or if the author is just that incapable of seeing the potential strength in a female character. It did get me thinking, but the main character was such a jerk, I had a hard time seeing beyond it. The more he whined about his tenable position which, essentially, left him in possession of two women, the more I wished one of them would just push him off a cliff. In the end, this was a story about a man incapable of being content with his life, no matter what that life might contain. It's always about what he can't have. It's always about how long he has to wait to get it. This means, in the end, he's always waiting, but the things he's waiting for always means the destruction, death, or desolation of a woman in his wake. He passes himself off as noble, but really he's a prick who finds fault in the slightest imperfection. What's worse, he always seems to get what he wants, even if he doesn't want it by the time he gets it.

I'm not sure what to think about it really. The sentences were well-constructed, but it was a book that showcased a patriarchal society. I'm not sure I like what it had to say about that. And I don't like what it says about women.

These two books were very different and they were interesting to read back-to-back. Egan's characters are so rich that it made the Jin characters look cookie cutter. This realization is something I can use to make choices in my own writing to create fully formed characters, regardless of if they are central characters or not. For a writer, every book is also a lesson in writing: what to do and what not to do. I like to think I know more about both.

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