A Visit From the Goon Squad
  • March 31, 2011

    Zombie Round

  • Jennifer Egan

    Z2A Visit From the Goon Squad
    v. 2The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

    Aimee Bender

  • Judged by

    Radhika Jones

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

No need for introductions or exposition; you know these books already. No, to the zombie-round judge, it is left to critique and enthuse and advance.

Actually, my first order of business is to confess. These were two novels I meant to read last year and didn’t. My defense is that I didn’t get to read much last year, period, but I know that’s weak. This year will be different. It’s already different! Anyway, I was excited when they arrived.

I knew the conceit of A Visit From the Goon Squad, of course: The distantly related chapters that, taken together, tell the story of a guy in the music business and his assistant, Sasha, going forward and backward in time. Which is to say, I’d read the reviews and heard smart friends praise it and thought, OK, if you say so, but it sounds a little gimmicky, and what’s with the PowerPoint presentation?

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Well, the PowerPoint presentation brought me to tears. But Egan had me from the first page. In the opening scene of the novel Sasha, a kleptomaniac on a date, sees a wallet in the ladies’ room and takes it. From that moment forward, the evening divides itself:

Prewallet, Sasha had been in the grip of a dire evening; lame date (yet another) brooding behind dark bangs, sometimes glancing at the flat-screen TV, where a Jets game seemed to interest him more than Sasha’s admittedly overhandled tales of Bennie Salazar, her old boss, who was famous for founding the Sow’s Ear record label and who also (Sasha happened to know) sprinkled gold flakes into his coffee—as an aphrodisiac, she suspected—and sprayed pesticide into his armpits.

Postwallet, however, the scene tingled with mirthful possibility.

I’ve never stolen a wallet. But I recognized immediately the gulf between prewallet and postwallet; the way one single action can change the tenor of an evening, an encounter, a life. Egan accomplishes this on virtually every page: She takes a small act and makes it the most important thing in the world, the thing that everything else is pre- and post-. And no comment is throwaway; later, for example, we see Bennie sprinkling gold flakes into his coffee. This is the kind of writerly confidence and consistency it is impossible to resist. I didn’t fall in love with Sasha or Bennie, but I fell in love with Egan’s writing. Then she made me cry via PowerPoint. Enough said.

Aimee Bender’s heroine is Rose, a girl who, at age nine, suddenly tastes the emotions behind every bite of food she eats. If I had read Like Water for Chocolate (which I didn’t) I would probably describe it as an inversion of Like Water for Chocolate. As far as it goes, it’s a nifty idea. “Food is full of feelings,” Rose explains—a horrible thing, when you think about it. Through the lemon cake, Rose becomes privy to her mother’s discontent—and later, the guilty happiness she finds in a new love. She develops an affinity for a particular lunch lady, whose sadness is more digestible than the rest. She finds solace in processed food, untouched by human hands. And her heightened sensitivity makes her the perfect narrator for a family whose members are even more than typically removed from each other.

But in the end, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake felt like a very good short story that had a growth spurt and never recovered its center of gravity. I liked Rose, and I cared about her—I felt invested in her as a character—but ultimately I didn’t feel that she progressed very far. The moment in the novel that affected me most profoundly was Rose’s discovery of her brother Joseph’s mystical talent; it’s a deeply disturbing scene, and I was excited by that. I wanted that visceral strangeness to persist and develop. But Joseph turns out to be a dead end in terms of plot—he just disappears. (To be fair, that’s the point of his talent, but it’s rather unsatisfying.) And I wasn’t sure how to feel about the late-breaking revelation that odd talents run in Rose’s family. Maybe I got too attached, but I liked the idea that Rose really was special. By the end of the novel, her hyper-sensitive taste buds are reduced to allegory, her struggles and her brother’s shoehorned into a lesson about how much of the world we can tolerate. I felt like I was watching a novel foreclose on its own possibilities.

Whereas Goon Squad reaches out. It does so in ways that are poignant and disorienting, heartening and unnerving all at once, and it reminded me of my first existential moment. I was about nine or ten, in the backseat of my family’s station wagon on a summer night, driving from Cincinnati to New York. We were in Pennsylvania. I was looking out the window in the dark at the traffic heading in the opposite direction and it struck me that the people in those cars didn’t know who I was, and most likely they never would, and even if I were to meet them later in life we would never know that we’d passed each other on the interstate highway in Pennsylvania, and the world was too big to know everyone, and to live in it I would have to accept that. That’s what Goon Squad is like. You’re in the overlapping slivers of the Venn diagrams. You have to accept the slices of lives as they come. You have to accept the pauses in the rock songs described in the PowerPoint presentation and take it on faith that they matter.

What’s amazing is that Egan never loses focus. She gives you a galaxy of characters, each one capable of spinning off into his or her own novel, but you come away marveling at how economical she is, how efficient. Sentence to sentence, she never misses an opportunity to tell you something specific, and impart that specificity with meaning.

TODAY’S WINNER: A Visit From the Goon Squad

Radhika Jones is an assistant managing editor at Time magazine, overseeing society and culture coverage. Previously, Jones was the managing editor of The Paris Review. Her writing has appeared in Time, The Paris Review, the New York Times Book Review, and Bookforum. Known connections to this year’s contenders: “I reviewed Room and Skippy Dies for Time, and edited the Jonathan Franzen cover story.”