A discussion that, unlike most of the others, did not on the whole start from a position of adoration of the book. Indeed, for a long time, it was difficult to get beyond a wave of indifference to its merits.
As always, we began by gathering in some single word responses to the book. We got:
In the introduction, I picked out three themes that I felt would be worth exploring. These were, in summary:
• That it is a story of second chances, where things that appear to be the end are not always the end. The book seems to have the Twin Towers massacre casting its dark shadow, sometimes directly, sometimes not, over all the characters’ lives. Symbolically, this is the end of one thing but also the beginning of something else. Many characters seem unable to move past what they are already and let themselves become something else.
• That it suggests language is both a tool and an obstacle to being understood. People will not call things what they are, hiding behind words and language they use. Words also sometimes seem inadequate, unable to bridge a communication gap, often one between generations. Communication is also impaired by the tools – texting sometimes replacing face-to-face conversations. On the other hand, these tools can sometimes bring something new and vital to communication – who knew a Powerpoint presentation could be so evocative?
• This is also a book which suggests what you forget, or choose to forget, is as important as what you remember. Throughout the book, people are worried about how they will be remembered. Crucially, memory is an important part of defining who you are; letting go of those memories, however, is sometimes the only way to become someone new.
There was a crowd of voices, from the beginning of the discussion, who felt negatively towards the book and its writing style. “Not good”, “implausible”, “second-rate chick lit” and “annoying” were descriptions used fairly early on. It was posited that perhaps it was written too much from a woman’s perspective. Dolores suggested that men may write better for men and women for women. This was broadly rejected in favour of more general criticisms of the book not being engaging enough. Buki suggested it was too linear, and that the lack of variety in characterisation was a big problem – as if the writer was too keen to draw parallels between experiences, rather than develop their individuality.
Dolores, who enjoyed the prose, suggested it lacked originality in its form, despite appearances. Andrew thought it was too lightweight and superficial, while acknowledging parts, such as the PowerPoint chapter, were clever. Sabina, who found it entertaining, thought that perhaps people were looking for too much, and that Egan was not trying to write a “clever” book in the David Foster Wallace mould. Dolores disagreed, saying that Egan’s attempts to vary the style showed a desire to be serious, and that this was a book with a serious theme, that of regret.
Sabina went on to say that while nothing spectacular may happen, that this is true of real life – the book captured the idea that for individuals, small things can cause big changes, where they find they are having to restart their lives from scratch.
One scene that caused some controversy was the rape in Central Park. This chapter was broadly enjoyed, though not by all, for its unique writing style. Denise thought it was very interesting for its portrayal of the male mind – the way Jules seems to assume Kitty is interested in him for the way she sucks her finger. Mick thought it was ludicrous, a jump cut coming out of nowhere. I disagreed with both Denise and Mick, as I felt that the rape scene came out of a desire for the writer to be more important than his subject matter, a not uncommon trait in some journalism – indeed the footnotes made me think of the extensive footnotes in Infinite Jest. Russell mentioned that this is something of the postmodern state of mind – the writer assuming him or herself to be more interesting than that which they are writing about. Buki was intrigued by the idea that it might be an acknowledgement of other writing – for example, the lead character in the book The Confederacy of Dunces shouts at celebrities on the TV: “Rape them!”
Most remained unconvinced by its literary merits and this was reflected in the next part of our discussion, where the question of voice and characterisation was raised. While Denise suggested that its lightness and playfulness was part of its attraction, and Sabina felt its variety of styles and voices was an attempt to be rebellious, there were many voices in the room who couldn’t agree. Russell suggested that, rather than there being ‘different voices’, it read more like someone doing impressions, and any quirkiness was an effect without substance, clichéd and clumsy. Perle remained unconvinced by the characters and thought it was mainly unmemorably written. Andrew thought it remained too much on the surface, without the depth he liked and appreciated in postmodern literature. Mick thought most of the characters behaved implausibly – particularly Kitty in her sudden, unexpected berating of the dictator's human rights record.
Taking up the theme of the difficulty of communication mentioned in the introduction, Andrew wondered whether the decision by Dolly to take her young daughter Lulu on the trip to meet the dictator was an example of this – in this case, the fact that sometimes people find it easier not to say "no". Buki thought that this was perhaps where the idea of ‘shame’ came in to the novel – Dolly may be too ashamed to reveal her failure to her peers, so keeps Lulu with her to avoid embarrassment. in this regard, she went on, perhaps Egan is trying to get us to see that the things we obsess about and become overwhelmed by cause us to make bad decisions.
We may then have started to find a layer of complexity that had perhaps not been spotted before, as Denise pointed out that this was the same problem Benny had with his son, Chris: not being able to say ‘no’ to him. I thought this may point to an age-old problem of the generation gap, though one which is being played out in the modern era in favour of the young – infantilised adults being obsessed with not being seen to be 'past it' and to still be 'in touch' with the younger generation.
We finished on a broader discussion about modern communications, reflected in the book by characters who, for example, in the future, prefer to send text messages to one another rather than talk face to face. I thought there was more than one way of seeing this. Those of us who are old enough to remember a life before mobile phones might find changes in the form of communication disturbing. But those growing up with these new tools may simply find innovative and interesting ways to use them to communicate which may not be simply banal – such as Alison’s youthful reinvention of the Powerpoint presentation.
Finally, the best I could say in the book’s defence was that, like films such as Inception, which explore the idea of where the boundaries between dream and reality become blurred, this novel may be well-liked because it makes postmodernism more palatable to a wider audience. Ultimately, I just about managed to persuade those in the room who had disliked the book to consider what re-reading might do to their perception of it.