The narrative of this book is divided into connected short stories. In the first Alex and Sasha have a date, Sasha works for Bennie who stars in the second story; the third story whizzes back in time to when Bennie was in a band with Scotty ... and so it goes, like literary tag. This is great for a story but it does mean that you only get a little of each character so it is difficult for the author to develop them fully and reader wonders whether it is worth investing the time to get to know the character. Then people began to recur and meet up in different combinations. Now the reader has to remember the characters which they may not have paid full attention to in a previous story. And the cast of characters ended up quite large, and the reader had little guidance as to which characters were important and would recur and which were transient.
A similar technique was used by Tommy Orange in There, There.
This creates a fascinating interweaving of narrative but it was difficult to keep up with. Especially as the first half went backwards in time and the second half forwards. And then we leap even further forward, into the future and the last story you have to start picking up on new technologies and ideas and vocabularies.
In some ways this was a narrative tour de force that reminded me of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. But Mitchell had considerably larger chunks and rather fewer characters. I suppose narrative energy is like light. Spread it over a large area and it is dim but focus it and it becomes concentrated and bright.
But there were some great things about this book which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2011. I loved the character of Bennie, a respected (but perhaps past his best) record producer who felt repeated twinges of shame for things he had or hadn't done: we all get embarrassed but how often is that reflected in fiction. I was also utterly impressed by the second to last section which is presented as a slideshow instead of prose. There were also some brilliant lines:
- "She could tell that he was in excellent shape, not from going to the gym but from being young enough that his body was still imprinted with whatever sports he had played in high school and college." (A-1)
- "In cold weather he shivers like someone is shaking him." (A-3)
- "When she feels the booze hit she takes a long breath, like she's finally herself again." (A-3)
- "Rich people like to hostess, so they can show off their nice stuff." (A-3)
- "Everything is ending ... but not yet." (B-7)
- "Kitty came towards him slowly - poured toward him, really, that was how smoothly she moved in her sage green dress, as if the jerking awkwardness of walking were something she'd never experienced." (B-8)
- "Which one is really 'you', the one saying and doing whatever it is, or the one watching?" (B-10)
- "Is a person who sells oranges 'being bought'? Is the person who repairs appliances 'selling out'?" (B-13)
- "Those metaphors - 'up front' and 'out in the open' - are part of a system we call atavistic purism. AP implies the existence of an ethically perfect state, which not only doesn't exist and never existed, but is usually used to shore up the prejudices of whoever's making the judgments." (B-13)
December 2020; 349 pages
Other Pulitzer Prize winners reviewed in this blog include:
- The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (finalist, 1999)
- Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (2005)
- The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey (finalist, 2013)
- The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (2014)
- All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (2015)
- There There by Tommy Orange (finalist, 2019)
- Less by Andrew Sean Greer (winner 2018)