I had been wanting to read this book for awhile, and having read several great reviews of it all over the blogosphere, I knew it was only a matter of time before I read it for myself. Then it won the Pulitzer, and a little fire was lit under me not to let this book languish on my shelves any longer. And I ended up loving it. It was strange and somewhat directionless, but it was like nothing I’ve ever read before, and I enjoyed every last word. Egan does a great job with this ambitious story, and where it could have been a huge and sprawling mess, I found it to be intricately paced and very ingeniously plotted.
In the first few chapters, the reader is introduced to a handful of characters and is served a brief snippet of their lives. Sasha is stealing and trying to get help. Bennie is feeling old and out of it and is eating gold flakes. Then whoosh, we’re off, and everything is moving in the realm of tangents and one-offs, and we’re discovering just how Benny got to be who he is today, and are meeting other people who have a brief and fleeting relationship with our main characters. As the chapters push forward, we get closer and farther from Bennie and Sasha, but, like the characters in Six Degrees of Separation, all of these people are somehow related to each other. Egan handles this beautifully, and the only way to describe it is to imagine stepping into the lives of a crowd of people and jumping from perspective to perspective as you go careening through their life stories. But there’s no awkward confusion, no grasping or lingering uncomfortably as the story stretches aimlessly forward. Just a deep and resonating thrum as everything turns imperceptibly on its unexpected axis.
Each chapter is a vignette of another life, and as such they come across as a morphing of a short character study and a stylized short story focused on a the central themes of music and time. As we patter backwards and forwards through these characters’ lives, we begin to see that there’s no real linear progression in this book. Time is more fluid and expansive in the story that Egan tells, but it’s all done so skillfully that there is never confusion or trepidation when reading and experiencing something out of the ordinary. Time and issues elongate and contract, leading you backwards and forwards as if in a maze. These characters are not only interesting to read about, they are unusually perceptive about the lives they have led and will lead, leaving readers to marvel over the back bends that Egan performs in the juxtapositioning of her tale and its clever character contortions.
At the heart of at all is the reflection of time and what it does to even the most optimistic and casual observer. Egan goes to great lengths to show her readers what it’s like to live both in the moment and to look back on it. Music plays a great part of this book, and though I didn’t really know much about the bands and terminology she used, I found these sections thrumming with just as much life as the other sections. There was even a chapter that was related in a complex power-point presentation, proving that Egan is just as talented at mixing media as she is at creating the type of story that will keep readers flipping the pages and hungering for more. As I watched these characters come together and pull apart, there was a sense of a rising nostalgia in me, as well as a hopefulness that played about the story’s edges.
Though I haven’t read many Pulitzer winners, I would have to say this book deserves the prize wholeheartedly. It’s a book that has the capacity to make readers nervous, what with all the nonlinear shuffles and strange combinations of characters and situations, but Egan handles it all like a master, so there’s no real reason to be anxious at all. It was a remarkable story that left me pondering for hours after I had turned the last page, and I heartily recommend it to readers who haven’t yet given it a shot. A complex but fascinating read. Highly recommended!