September 5th, 2012

Library books

Audio Killed the Literature Star

Tonight I have a very special double feature! Two works of "literary fiction," one that makes for an amazing audiobook and one that does not. See if you can guess which is which!

In recent years, I've become really interested in the fact that everything you know about how the world works, what it is, you learn. You come into the world all tabula rasa, and if you're taught to shuffle cards one way, you assume that is the way that everyone shuffles cards. How would you know otherwise? Why would you think those shadows on the wall of the cave aren't real? You don't know any better. So of course I was primed to love Room, by Emma Donoghue.

Jack is five years old, and he lives in Room. He has never lived anywhere but Room. He has never been outside Room. To him, Room is real. It is the entire world. There is Room, and there is TV. There is Rug, Bed, Duvet, Wardrobe, Lamp, and Plant. And Ma. And...Old Nick. Although it doesn't become clear in the narrative for a while, the hints are all there, and it's the basic premise of the book, so: he and his mother are captives, his mother having been kidnapped. Jack was born in Room, and Ma has raised him to believe that there is nothing more, possibly to keep him from having a hope of a better world dashed and possibly to avoid answering lots of uncomfortable questions about how she got there.

In a sense, Jack becomes an intriguing social experiment, and it's really fascinating to see how he perceives reality, especially when he considers the reality of Room versus the fiction of TV. There is a hard disconnect for him there: things are either real or they are TV. But...what happens when, finally, Jack and Ma escape? And Jack discovers that the real world is far, far bigger than Room? "Am I real?" he wonders, and it's sad and funny at the same time.

This book is propelled entirely on the strength of Jack's narrative voice, so even when it didn't appear that the story was really moving forward, I was completely captivated and, dare I say it, entertained by Jack's naive, occasionally profound observations. There was a small part of me that wondered if it was exploitative to use this poor boy's horrible situation—a fictional boy, although there is a similar real-life case—as fodder for inadvertent humor and commentary on the world. Because, see, Jack doesn't realize that he's in a horrible situation. The real horror comes from interpreting the statements of Ma and Old Nick and others, putting together what Jack can't. And, yet, it is not a depressing book, simply because Jack is not depressed. He is a happy, joyous child, sometimes confused, sometimes angry, but...he's just a kid, trying to understand things. Donoghue sort of gets to have it both ways with him too, as there are times when his language is a bit more mature than expected, which could be explained as something he picked up from TV or the fact that his education from Ma was completely focused for his five years, and other times when he says adorable things like "melted-y spoon" because he's, you know, five and he basically grew up in a cave.

I highly recommend the audiobook because it has a four-person cast (Michal Friedman, Ellen Archer, Suzanne Toren, and Robert Petkoff) doing all the voices, so Jack and Ma and Old Nick all have different voice actors, which makes it one of the best audiobook experiences I've ever had. The voice acting is excellent, and the scenes in Room where only Jack and Ma are talking made me feel almost voyeuristic, like I was listening in on them.

Room is a wonderful, engrossing novel about the perception of reality and a mother's love. The relationship between Ma and Jack is at the heart of the book, and whether they're in Room or the real world, Jack knows their love is the most real of all.

At no point in A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan, is anyone visited by a goon squad. Because—spoiler warning—the goon is TIME. Time beats you up and leaves you for dead.

This is the sort of book where knowing certain things up front may actually result in a better reading experience because you're not burdened by certain expectations. The blurb states that the book focuses on Bennie Salazar, an aging music executive, and Sasha Blake, his assistant, and their interconnected lives and whatnot. This led me to believe that the book would actually be about these characters and their stories. It is not. The book is divided into thirteen chapters, each told from a different character's perspective (perspective, not POV: the book uses first-, third-, and even second-person). Minor characters in one story can become the main character in another, and vice-versa. The stories are not chronological and span the past, present, and future. So the book is more of a collection of linked short stories than a traditional novel, but the links are rather tenuous. There is no overarching plot; that is not how the stories are connected. They are connected by character at times and mostly theme. Each is unique, and some are more compelling than others. There is a much-talked-about chapter told in PowerPoint, and Egan does engage in some "literary" sci-fi, which means that the science fiction is based more in metaphor, satire, and social criticism than plausibility.

These sort of narrative gymnastics would normally appeal to me, but I couldn't entirely get into the book for a few reasons. I kept wanting the stories to actually intersect in interesting ways, but they felt too much like independent short stories (in fact, some had been published as such). It took me several chapters to realize that, no, we would not ever be returning to the events in previous chapters, which left me feeling unfulfilled a lot of the time. Sure, there was a common theme here and there, but I, personally, don't read books just for a theme; I want to follow characters on a journey. Instead, I got partial journeys, glimpses, vignettes. Which, to be sure, were entertaining and interesting sometimes. But I also thought that, unfortunately, I did this book a disservice by listening to it as an audiobook. Roxana Ortega reads the book as if she is reading it to you, word by word, phrase by phrase, without a lot of character or personality most of the time; she does bring a bit more in the first-person narration. This seems like the kind of book that I could have gotten absorbed in if I were appreciating the language on my own, but hearing it aloud didn't have the same effect. Not to mention the fact that the PowerPoint chapter is obviously not as effective.

There is much to like and admire about the book, though. Jennifer Egan does have her clever, witty moments, and I laughed out loud several times. The stories are rather offbeat most of the time. She does make many lovely and haunting observations about the passage of time and nostalgia and everything else related to the theme of the book. And while the stories didn't connect as much as I wanted them to, I did get a thrill every time I picked up on a connection, the little threads weaving the entire book together.

At least it's a better Pulitzer Prize winner than The fucking Shipping News.