Daniel Williams

Posts Tagged ‘book review’

‘Perfect Lives’ (2010) Polly Samson

In Book Review, English, Literature, Review, Writing on 21/08/2011 at 12:05

Despite the glowing words of praise that cover the copy of Perfect Lives (2010) I can’t say I was impressed with it. The quotes call it funny, compelling and moving, but I thought it never gets beyond its middle-class trappings. Polly Samson seems to be lampooning the middle-classes while remaining very much a part of it, and celebrating it in the final story. The book begins with an epigram from Leonard Cohen, and on finishing Perfect Lives, I found that one quote had something more interesting to say than the stories in the book.

The prose had a tendency towards a knowing lyricism; you can almost hear the author saying ‘I am going to be poetic now’. I’m not a fan of that kind of prose. She makes some melodramatic descriptions, the worst offender been this, which I had to read three times before I realised she was been serious: “Leszeck’s eyelashes would always make every woman he met think about having his baby.” I’m sure some people think it’s marvellously poetic but it’s very silly to me.

The stories are all set in a seaside town. Not much is made of the setting, other than it’s a middle-class seaside town. Characters crossover, much like in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad (2010) by Jennifer Egan. In A Visit From… the connections between characters are never presented with a flourish, but appear casually and without comment, as connections between people do in real-life. In Perfect Lives when a character from another story turns up in another, there often is a melodramatic flourish in the reveal. The character that appears most (an unnamed amateur photographer) is sadly the least interesting and goes on no real journey other than a happy acceptance of a bourgeois life.

Unlike A Visit From… none the stories in Perfect Lives moved me. Polly Samson finds nothing insightful about the characters she presents. I think part of my trouble with reading this book was I took a dislike to it pretty early on. Taking a dislike to a book early on is like when you take a dislike to a person you just meet- no matter what they say you’ll always find it a bit irritating.

I imagine that if I spoke to Polly Samson (after she hits me for disparaging her book) I’d find little crossover between the authors we like. There seems to be a hint of the British Victorians to her prose and I really dislike British Victorian literature. I can see why people would give this book glowing quotes, but it is not things I enjoy in a book. I don’t imagine she’d think much of my stories, either.

‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’ (2010) Jennifer Egan

In American, Book Review, Literature, Review, Writing on 15/08/2011 at 19:25

There has been some talk as to whether A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010) should be classed as a novel or a short story collection. No matter what it’s classed as I think it’s a great read. The book is made up of a series of interconnected short stories- a supporting character in one becomes the main player in the next, somebody mentioned in that story is a narrator three stories later. The stories also skip around in time, flitting from now to the past and the near future. Probably most famously is that one story (or chapter, depending on your view) is told through PowerPoint slides. I first thought this was just a gimmick, but the story turned out to really use its medium well.

The thing that could most argue for A Visit from the Goon Squad’s status as a novel is that themes of the passage of time and growing-up are the focus of most of the stories. The non-linear order of the stories allows the reader to see aftermaths of decisions before going back to the decision. One of the voices of the novel is an omniscient third-person narrator who gives details of characters futures before returning to present of the character in the story. This is none more poignant than in the story ‘Safari’ which reveals a child’s tragic future before returning to the child dancing. While it has comic passages I felt that the tone of the book was one of poignancy, been able to see characters pasts and futures can be heartbreaking.

My favourite stories in the book were ‘Safari’ and ‘A to B’, but because of the changing style of narrative voice, central character and time I think somebody else reading the book would prefer other stories. The story I liked least was the final one (if you actually want to read this book you might want to skip these next few lines- nothing major is revealed, but if you’d prefer the surprise of discovering for yourself skip this part) because it skips forward to a near-future where everybody connects by handheld devices that project 3D holograms. I suppose because it was set in the future the short did not have the same ring to it as when Egan wrote about the 70s, 80s or now. It felt to me a little like when you see a programme from the 1950s talking about the future- that by 2000 we’d by on the moon, wearing jetpacks, etc. I just find that looking to the future always looks silly once the future becomes present.

At it’s best A Visit from the Goon Squad functions as a Citizen Kane-like puzzle as we are asked to unravel who this characters really are from what Jennifer Egan shows us. I found myself trying to remember supporting characters and characters mentioned in passing to see if they’d turn up again in other stories. There are some red herrings- important incidents are mentioned but never shown. I liked this style. It kept me on my toes.

 A Visit from the Goon Squad is a funny, sad and well-written book that I gladly recommend.

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