(Looking for a swallow rather than a full glass? ORANGE Squirt below.)
Dear A Visit to the Goon Squad,
I was #268 on the library hold list for you after you won the National (US) Book Critics Circle Award, but before you won the Pulitzer, although my reason for wanting to read you was actually in the middle there: your appearance on the Orange Prize’s longlist.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s not as though I hadn’t wanted to read you before. I mean, I knew from reading part of one of your early chapters in The New Yorker — “Safari” — that you would be worth the time. And I remember finding the atmosphere and layers of The Keep bizarrely satisfying, but if I wasn’t slightly obsessed with the Orange Prize, I would have waited for you.
At least until my turn. At #268.
But I love the idea of reading the whole Orange Prize longlist and so, when I saw a copy of you on the shelves of another branch library (not my regular haunt…I can be fickle that way), I snatched you up.
When I say ‘snatched’, I think you will understand — because you are all about the details — that it was an impetuous act, with an element of roughness, with a lack of foresight. And I think you will get the sense that right about there, in the snatching, was where things started to go wrong.
I would understand if you don’t want to finish reading this, because I realize that all those qualities are just what you are not.
You are a class act, with impeccable presentation, one which has a playful tone to it that does not overshadow your careful crafting. And I should have known. I should not have snatched you.
You are not the sort of book that should be snatched. (And because I don’t want to have to write letters of apology to any other books at a later date, I shall refrain from suggesting more appropriately snatch-able books.)
I especially should not have snatched you a few days before everything in my life suddenly went Boom. Well, that wasn’t anything that I could have predicted, but the Boom was — among other things — the sound of all the books on my bedside table (and on every other flat surface that houses them) snapping closed.
While I was so preoccupied by setting my bookshelves in order — literally and figuratively — I should have chosen some snatchable books to read. But shortly after finishing Anna Peile’s Repeat It Again with Tears, I picked you up and then I started to read you, in the way that one proceeds with an activity that only barely imitates the act of reading, against a restless, even chaotic, backdrop.
I read you for more than three weeks, gulping bits of you (like morning espresso) and chewing other bits too long (like freshly baked bagels), whereas pre-Boom I would have read you in as many days.
I know I was wrong. (And, hungry, but I’m back to eating and sleeping and something-like-normal now, and I love it, so you don’t have to worry about me, if you were, but I bet you weren’t anyhow, because now that you’ve won the Pulitzer you probably don’t have time to worry about temporarily overwhelmed readers with gerbil-like attention spans. Who would.)
If it’s any consolation, I didn’t read anything at all for three weeks after I finished you. Even though I clearly didn’t give you a proper chance, I can see that the qualities that I admired and enjoyed in The Keep were there in your pages.
See? I’m not all bad: I did pay attention when I read The Keep in Orange Prize Season 2008. On the night I began reading, I made these notes:
“At the end of the first chapter, I realized that I needed to re-read. There is an extra voice that I wasn’t expecting, a third person in addition to Howie and Danny. Twenty pages in, I flipped back to the inner page and read the description, so that I realized a prisoner is narrating the tale; his is the third voice. I re-read the opening pages to see if I missed anything before the end of that chapter, but no: it’s rather an odd way to introduce a narrator. Still, I’m intrigued.”
Well, at least I was paying enough attention to know that I needed to make another pass and pay more attention the second time through. (I realize this isn’t looking good for me. I seem to lack focus even when circumstances are more stable!)
And no, I didn’t remember this — not specifically, just general ‘good’ thoughts — when I started reading you. (Even though things here are quite settled once more, I still have a terrible reader’s memory, although at least I can still find where I write things down in an attempt to make amends for my terrible memory, so I could find my notes on The Keep, though eventually even this will be beyond my grasp, I’m sure.) This was a couple of years ago, so I had to look it up.
But I did recognize that you were something special. Even at the beginning of your second chapter, I realized that you would be worth re-reading. You, too, had extra voices. And I needed to flip back in your pages countless times. You are rather an odd way to tell a story, too, but, as with “Safari” and that earlier novel, I was intrigued. Just like I was before.
And, just like the layers that I delighted in uncovering in 2008, reading The Keep, I see interconnections between you and it — between these two reading experiences — as well.
You even take a look at some similar ideas: what happens between ‘then’ and ‘now’, what events in our lives are turning points that we don’t recognize as such until later, how does time move, in which ways do we connect and disconnect with other people (and other times and memories) whilst we are trying to make sense of Everything That Changes.
You are a good book. And you deserved a better reader. All the more so because there was something especially lovely about your final page. (I was really worried that I was going to feel a bit lost at the end of it all, but there was something really ‘right’ there. Not like a ribbon tied in a bow ‘right’. But like the smooth satiny feel of a ribbon between your fingers while you’re looking at some other ribbon that has been tied already. It felt like the right amount of being lost and found, and I really needed that.)
Originality A chapter in PowerPoint format
Readability Strong when approached as a series of short stories
Author’s voice Varied but credible
Narrative structure Tapestry of tales with diverse styles and voices
Gaffes None spotted
Expectations Up with Franzen’s Freedom, it’s been the subject of much bookish chatter
Ray Robertson’s Moody Food (1992)
Vincent Lam’s Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures (2006)