— Haruki Murakami, “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle”
— “The Magicians” by Lev Grossman
— “Zeitoun” by Dave Eggers
As a hopeless lover of maps and cities, and even more so of books about maps and books about cities, I was instantly enthralled by the work of Oregon-based British artist Matthew Picton, whose stunning paper sculptures of cities are made of books and other textual materials related to the respective city, taking the art of book sculpture to whole new level of meta with subtle, thoughtful commentary through the selection of the specific texts.
It’s Pipe Dream’s first book review since, what, a year? Check out my review of “The Magician King” by Lev Grossman.
You can read my other Pipe Dream articles from here.
Hot girl singing the “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy from “Hamlet, Prince of Denmark” by William Shakespeare.
A dress made mostly of Harry Potter books.
Obviously this subject would require (perhaps ironically) an entire nonfiction book to discuss its merits in full (though a fiction book may be possible - I am not intelligent or creative enough to conceive it at the present; I may attempt it in the future), but I thought to address it anyway.
The fundamental defense for reading fiction over nonfiction is that fiction forms context unto itself whereas nonfiction is inherently tied to the context in which the author resides. This is because there is no pure barrier between the author and the writing in nonfiction. An author of nonfiction may emotionally distance him or herself from the piece in order to create the illusion of neutral perspective, but in truth the author has nothing of substance between himself and the piece. In fiction, the context for which piece is influenced is the world in which the characters of the writing exist. Of course, this does not apply to badly-written fiction in which a world is partially realized. Though one may mention that the world of creation is inherently of the author and thus reflects the author’s belief, it is one degree seperated from reality and is thus further than time itself. Meaning, in creating his world of fiction, the author considers reality and the differences between his creation, thus radically realizing a world in fairness. Again, this is only true with good fiction; my argument does not apply to badly-written novels.
The above argument does not justify the merits of a piece in which context is separated from reality. For that, the justification is that once fiction is free of our human rules of time and space, it becomes distinct from reality and therefore infinitely true and relatable in theme. A piece of fiction may endure because of timeless ideas where nonfiction is wholly concerned with temporary matters. This is not to say that nonfiction or the temporary is useless, only that just because something is immediate does not mean it intrinsically deserves more merit and attention than something eternal.
I think it’s really depressing that people show collections like this off. It shows the opposite of what a book collection should show - a complete confidence in populism. The collection is composed entirely of bestsellers and thus conveys no individuality whatsoever on the owner. It’s like one of those people who say their favorite movies are The Dark Knight and Pulp Fiction. Sure, they are arguably good, but surely you can do better than that. Take a risk. Read something by an author who’s never been named on the New York Times bestseller list. Try some poetry, nonfiction, or experimental fiction.
Randomly remembered that I used to read this series. Good stuff, especially because I live in New York.
The first thing that you notice when going from chapter to chapter in Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit From the Goon Squad” is the unique structure. Most novels are linear, and the daring ones merely shun chronology with their structure. Goon Squad, however, skips across time, space, and perspective effortlessly. Each chapter is more like a short story which is somehow connected to the other stories in the book, either directly or indirectly. One chapter may be from the perspective of a significant supporting character in the previous story, or it may be from the point of view of a character that was simply seen in a photograph.
The structure goes further than that, though. Chapters are written in all different manners: first person, third person, apostrophe, a story written in smaller chapters, Journalistic field report, or, in the case of one of my favorite chapters, a slideshow. It should be noted that despite skipping over space and time in such a radical fashion, Egan’s work remains very intimate, leaving no character a cliche. In fact, she sometimes depicts characters as cliches in one story only to develop them in a different one, revealing a different set of intentions for what has been assumed in a previous story and sometimes leaving actions frustratingly ambiguous. The mosaic of human nature displayed is magnificent and awe-inspiring in this sense.
The central question proposed by each character seems to be, as one character asks very well (though in a different, unexpected context), “At what precise moment did you tip just slightly out of alignment with the relatively normal life you had been enjoying theretofore, cant infinitesimally to the left or the right and thus embark upon the trajectory that ultimately delivered you to your present whereabouts?” While each chapter provides some clues to an overall answer, some in darkly funny manners and others in emotionally heartfelt, ones, it is the bifurcating centerpiece of the novel, a chapter aptly entitled “From A to B,” which offers the most complete answer, one that involves decision-making, roots, and the raw, cosmic, unpredictability of life.
Such a question also deals with the uncontrollable passage of time and how it cannot be grasped to an extent which which one can take full advantage of it, a fact always at the loss of human experience. As one description goes, “They looked at one another in the failing light. The delicate bones of Sasha’s face were lightly freckled—it was a girl’s face, but she’d stopped being a girl when he wasn’t watching.” Some characters accept the impossibility, the sheer monumental undertaking, of keeping up with time and see time as a great, humbling equalizer which places the generally-considered-as-lowly position of a janitor the same as an executive. “I was working for the city as a janitor in a neighborhood elementary school and, in summers, collecting litter in the park alongside the East River near the Williamsburg Bridge. I felt no shame whatsoever in these activities, because I understood what almost no one else seemed to grasp: that there was only an infinitesimal difference, a difference so small that it barely existed except as a figment of the human imagination, between working in a tall green glass building on Park Avenue and collecting litter in a park. In fact, there may have been no difference at all.”
In a profound and powerful turn of events, the character later rebukes those views and gains ambition. “I’d tracked him down to snatch away these gifts life had shoveled upon him, wipe them out in a few emphatic seconds. This made me want to scream with laughter: Hey “buddy,” don’t you get it? There’s nothing you have that I don’t have! It’s all just X’s and O’s, and you can come by those a million different ways. But two thoughts distracted me as I stood there, smelling Bennie’s fear: (1) I didn’t have what Bennie had. (2) He was right.” Ambition is the way he deals with the passage of time - by becoming something greater than he was each previous day. In the end, it pays off.
It would be demeaning to suggest that Goon Squad merely deals with how people become “lost” and how they deal with it. The novel also deals with how the lost are treated. In one chapter, an art historian, lost himself, goes on a journey to Naples to find his long-lost niece only hoping to not run into her and when he does, the actions of the two are unexpected and humane, written with an elegance that makes the whole thing shockingly natural. The characters in the novel are treated with astonishing dignity and grace, and soon after finishing the book, you wish you could be with them for longer.
In the famous slideshow chapter, a character has an obsession with pauses in songs. He diligently keeps track of how long pauses are in rock and roll songs - two seconds, five seconds, and in the occasion of “Mighty Sword” by The Frames, more than a minute. The answer to why the character does that comes with difficulty, but it is deeply profound.
“The pause makes you think the song will end. And then the song isn’t really over, so you’re relieved. But then the song does actually end, because every song ends, obviously, and THAT. TIME. THE. END. IS. FOR. REAL.”