The sensation surrounding this novel forced me to buy it and the purchase was made sooner with the insistence of one of my bookish friends to read it along with him. I remember I was on budget mode that time, but a novel getting the nod of the jurors of both the Pulitzer and the Book Critics Circle? It must be worth it.
I have mixed feelings for this book. Upon closing it after reading the last sentence, I felt that it was okay. The next week, I realized that I like it. And then a few more months, I love it. Is that possible? Of course it is.
I think that the selling point of this novel is that PowerPoint presentation chapter, spanning 76 pages on my edition. That alone is enough for a cautious reader to try this book, but there are more reasons to read it. First, it’s more a disjointed collection of short stories than a regular novel. Second, each story is presented in a unique way, the PowerPoint presentation I mentioned being one of them and one rare chapter told in the second person point of view, which is coincidentally my favorite one. Perhaps this paragraph from that chapter, “Out of Body,” is all that it takes for me to love the novel more after the passing of time:
As you flail, knowing you’re not supposed to panic–panicking will drain your strength–your mind pulls away as it does so easily, so often, without your even noticing sometimes, leaving Robert Freeman Jr. to manage the current alone while you withdraw to the broader landscape, the water and buildings and streets, the avenues like endless hallways, your dorm full of sleeping students, the air thick with their communal breath. You slip through Sasha’s open window, floating over the sill lined with artifacts from her travels: a white seashell, a small gold pagoda, a pair of red dice. Her harp in one corner with its small wood stool. She’s asleep in her narrow bed, her burned red hair dark against the sheets. You kneel beside her, breathing the familiar smell of Sasha’s sleep, whispering into her ear some mix of I’m sorry and I believe in you and I’ll always be near you, protecting you, and I will never leave you, I’ll be curled around your heart for the rest of your life, until the water pressing my shoulders and chest crushes me awake and I hear Sasha screaming into my face: Fight! Fight! Fight!
The twin axes of the stories are Bennie, a music producer, and Sasha, Bennie’s assistant. The first two chapters deal with the two, and then we get disoriented as the focus leaps from one character to another. The so-called plot is stretched to years, probably thirty to fifty or seventy. I can’t give a good guess because there are lapses, but it’s strange having gained this knowledge, after finishing each chapter, that you know everything that happened to the characters.
But really, it’s hard to give a summary of this book. It’s almost like a small town novel: the characters, some who don’t even seem to have an impact on the general structure of the novel, keep intersecting each other’s lives like a connect-the-dots puzzle. But it’s also hardly that because despite the interconnection, there’s also a sense of discontinuity, and this is prevalent with how the novel is presented: stories that can stand alone.
As if those weren’t enough, the moods of the stories shift from one to the other: melancholy, funny, bittersweet, tragic, and just plain zany. Themes range from adolescent hopes and fears, to adult self-destruction, to middle-life reorganization, and to old age displacement. In addition, there’s no cause and effect thing going on. The narrative just unravels and it does so quickly, and then suddenly it runs out, but it isn’t over. It’s merely a pause, as the PowerPoint presentation chapter points out, and it will resume, and in what manner, we can only brace ourselves.
And it will end, right? It will, as a cassette tape is bound to, from side A to B, just like our lives are designed to, but I have a strange feeling that the novel never really finished, like it somehow rewound itself without repeating anything that has been said. This is ultimately the reason my feelings for it keep changing each time I think about it. It seems to me like an almost forgotten and seemingly irrelevant character still has something to say and wants to connect to the disconnectedness. Unfortunately, the pages have run out.
The snobbish reader can easily dismiss this novel as nothing short of a gimmick. But it pulls off. The author does not write it just because she wants to and just because she can. She does so to make a point, that life is constantly harassed by memories of what we lost and what we have left during various points of time.
If the reader prefers his novel ordered chronologically, then this is a challenge. Time leaps capriciously on its own, as if it was some robber, some goon squad ringing off your burglar alarm at the least expected date. Your sleep is disturbed, your wrists are bonded with rope or duct tape, your life is threatened. And hopefully, the robber will leave you at least dumbfounded, thinking how such an occurrence could take place, and then wait for the next day.
And the next.