Elly McDonald

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Reviews: Another American war – Manhattan Beach (2018) by Jennifer Egan, American War (2018) by Omar El Akkad

Two strong novels presenting visions of America at war, at its best and at its worst.

That’s the short summary.

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Manhattan Beach is not an especially long novel, at 433 pages, though the narrative sprawls. It’s set in the early ‘30s, from 1933, and then from about 1942, after U.S. forces entered World War 2. Variously, we see through the eyes of Anna Kerrigan, a splint of steel with a kind of innate, blind mechanical genius; her father, Eddie Kerrigan, a bagman for Irish racketeers on the New York docks; and Dexter Styles, stylish mob boss for the Syndicate.

The characters can be read, allegorically, as embodiments of the traits that made America great: boldness, resilience, resourcefulness, courage, individualism, ambition, idealism, initiative, a certain ruthlessness, ethics that make sense on their own terms but then again – no.

Allegorically, the novel could be read as an ambitious tale of the rise of the American Century, the rise of American world dominance, fuelled by immigrant energy, replete with gangsters and war heroes, chorus girls and dock workers, closet homosexuals, proto-feminists, and systemic racism.

There are nods to other narratives of immigrant reinvention, other relationships between the American Establishment (the world of bankers) and the Mob. In Manhattan Beach, we read counterpoints, echoes, to E L Doctorow’s 1975 bestseller Ragtime, and, more pertinently, to F Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby, and The Last Tycoon, albeit less glamorous.

I envisage Dexter Styles as the young Robert De Niro, playing Monroe Stahr, a character based on movie producer Irving Thalberg, in Elia Kazan’s 1976 film adaptation of The Last Tycoon. Which, incidentally, has what for me might be the most haunting final lines in movies, entirely apposite to Manhattan Beach, from a script by Harold Pinter: the master storyteller, the maestro of reinvention and invention, turning to camera and admitting, “I don’t know what happens next.”

There’s a motif of night skies, dawn skies, silver seas, and moonlight throughout Manhattan Beach, as there was in Kazan’s vision of The Last Tycoon.

That last scene, in The Last Tycoon, with the night sky above a beach, is so entirely apposite to Manhattan Beach I can’t help but wonder if it inspired the novel. But then, I also wonder if Jennifer Egan’s project was to write a response to Trump and his ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan. I wondered as I read whether her plan was to present an optimistic reminder of “the greatest generation” – but the ending is not, in truth, optimistic:

“Look,’ [he] said. “here it comes.”

She was surprised to find him watching the fog. It rolled in fast: a wild volatile silhouette against the phosphorescent sky. It reared up over the land like a tidal wave about to break, or the aftermath of a silent, distant explosion.

Without thinking, she took [his] hand.

“Here it comes,” she said.

Final lines worthy of Harold Pinter.

There’s a character whose verbal quirk calls to mind Samuel Beckett: when he repeats a thing, the repetition negates what he’s saying – “What I want from you […] is that you be your own man. Your own man”, or ‘It’s forgotten. It’s all forgotten’ meaning just the opposite (quote here not exact).

Egan does not generally evoke Beckett, or Pinter, her style being fluid, welcomely readable, astonishingly seductive. Very occasionally, there’s a faint of odour of romantic overripeness, just momentary; and then, at other points, she pokes fun of movie, radio, and popular fiction romance.

When she does write sex, as she does as an extended sequence in Chapter 17, it’s erotically charged and intelligent, and does not neglect context:

And yet there was a problem with the girl in his car – this smart, modern girl with correct values, joined to the war effort, a girl matured by hard times and familial tragedy – and that problem was that all he could think of doing, in a concrete way, was fucking her. The rest – vague notions that she might work for him, that her toughness could be of use, that she was likely a good shot (taut slender arms, visible in the dress she was wearing tonight); confusion about how they had originally met (had someone introduced them?) – flickered at a middle distance, well behind his need to have her. And even as that need made it hard to drive the goddam car, he was also thinking: this was the problem between men and women, what made the professional harmony he envisaged so difficult to achieve. Men ran the world, and they wanted to fuck women. Men said “Girls are weak” when in fact girls made them weak.

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Omar El Akkad’s novel American War is a different proposition: a terrifying, raw novel that imagines a future while simultaneously confronting us with the contemporary politics of displacement, radicalization, terrorism, torture, treason, the fall and rise of empires.

It’s a disturbing read that humanizes (though not necessarily forgives) the players.

American War follows the trajectory of Sarat, an American girl from Louisiana’s south in a United States geographically altered by the encroachment of the seas, due to climate change, and altered politically by the Second American Civil War, 2074-2095, with a breakaway “Free Southern State” (FSS), led by the MAG (Mississippi/Alabama/Georgia, South Carolina having been knocked out by biological weapons), proclaimed after disputes about fossil fuels, acts of terrorism, and political assassinations.

The author was born in Egypt, raised in Qatar, moved to Canada, and now lives in Oregon. As a journalist he’s won a National Newspaper Award for Investigative Reporting in Canada for his coverage of a 2006 terror plot. He’s also reported on the NATO-led war in Afghanistan, the military trials at Guantanamo Bay, Egypt’s Arab Spring, and Black Lives Matter.

It seems obvious – to me, at least – that El Akked’s project with American War is to describe the paths to radicalization, the making of a terrorist (of terrorists). Western readers won’t read a novel about children growing up in refugee camps in Jordan, Turkey, Pakistan or Kenya; so El Akkad has written about Gaza, Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia and Sudan in the guise of speculative fiction set in America. I was disconcerted, on scanning some online reviews, to see that some American readers failed to recognize that intention, and instead expected a World War Z-style overview of a dystopian social collapse. Reviewers didn’t understand why the author’s focus increasingly narrowed in on Sarat, a character it’s hard – and gets harder – to empathise with. Katniss Everdeen, she is not.

(I was also nonplussed by the person who complained that all the main characters, except Sarat, who is explicitly black, are, according to him, white, with, apparently, “No Hispanics or Blacks”. It seems to me quite evident that just about all the characters are racial blends, with varying degrees of Black, Hispanic and other racial traits, not to mention the Arab and North African characters from the fictional rising power, the Bouazizi Empire. I can only assume the readers who failed to recognize the multiracial nature of this future are the same readers who were shocked, on seeing the first Hunger Games movie, to realize that Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins intended the character Rue, along with most of the inhabitants of District 11, to be black.)

By following Sarat, El Akkat takes us on a dark journey through displacement, to a displaced persons’ camp (clearly, to my mind, analogous to displaced persons’ camps and refugee camps in the Middle East), through the politics of radical splinter groups, to radical activism, to an interrogation camp (clearly, to my mind, analogous to Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib) called Sugarloaf Detention Facility, on an island reminiscent of Robben Island (where Nelson Mandela was held) but which happens to be the residue of what once was Florida.

The spectral raising of Nelson Mandela seems, to me, intentional. El Akkat intends to explain radicalization and terrorism, not condone it. In how he writes what happens after Sarat emerges from detention at Sugarloaf, he intends to make clear that Sarat still has choices: she could use her horrific experiences for the good, as Nelson Mandela did, or by creating a healing, peaceful life in seclusion for herself and those close to her – she is, remarkably, offered that option, due to unique circumstances her family is blessed by. But Sarat chooses a different course of action.

We are told 11 million people die in the Second American Civil War. Another 110 million die in its aftermath, after a terrorist turns biological weapon during Reunification Day celebrations. It’s a terrible cost. American War is speculative fiction, but no wonder young American reviewers put down this book, incomplete.

The myth of the “Greatest Generation” is that war brings out the best in a people: the myth directs to 1940s Americans, the British during the Blitz. But, without minimizing the undoubted heroism many Americans (soldiers, merchant navy, civilian war workers) did demonstrate during World War II, and the undoubted heroism many British service personnel and civilians showed from 1939 onwards, it is a lie. War does not bring out the best in people. It brings out the worst.

War brings out the racketeers, the profiteers, the exploiters, the sadists, the sociopaths, the people forced to abandon goodness to the slave-god Survival. War breaks down civil order, breaks down social codes. War has its merits if it takes place offshore, if your side emerge as winners, if you’ve invested in profitable war-related ventures. If it takes place on home soil, if you are directly affected, if you’re injured or displaced or your soul is destroyed – not so okay.

As I said back at the start – just, no.

Somewhere, a fog shaped like a mushroom cloud rolls in.

Here it comes.

Robert_De_Niro_Monroe_Stahr_The_Last_Tycoon

Robert De Niro as Monroe Stahr


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Review: A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010) by Jennifer Egan

To be clear: this is not a book about music. This is a novel about time and technology, and change. The music business, being a fast-changing, youth-obsessed industry, just happens to provide a perfect environment for themes of change, aging, redundancy, mortality.

I would know. I spent 10 years in the rock music industry. Now I’m 35 years older. I feel it. So, I think, do my contemporaries.

Jennifer Egan says she didn’t know a lot about the music business but researched in order to write this story – or these stories, more correctly, as A Visit to the Goon Squad comprises thirteen interlocked, interrelated short stories rather than the novel’s traditional linear chapter narrative.

The stories loosely pivot around Bennie Salazar, first met as a teenage bass player in a garage punk band in San Francisco in 1979, and his long-time assistant, Sasha, who we see at her youngest as a small child from the perspective of her uncle, and at her oldest as a mother in her late 40s. Variously, we meet Bennie’s mentor Lou, a big-name, hedonistic record producer in the ‘60s and ‘70s; Bennie’s wife, Stephanie, a sometime publicist; Bennie’s protégé Alex, a one-night-stand of Sasha’s; Bennie’s close friends from his punk days, Scotty, Jocelyn, and Rhea; Sasha’s uncle and her college friend, Rob; Lou’s lover Mindy; Stephanie’s ex-boss Dolly, in her heyday known as LaDoll; Dolly’s daughter Lulu; the ex-rock star Bosco; the flailing ex-ingénue ex-movie star Kitty Jackson; Jules, Stephanie’s brother, who attempts to rape Kitty; and sundry other friends, family, lovers and clients.

The tone veers radically from satire to sour. The forms vary from Proustian to PowerPoint presentation (really).

It’s wildly ambitious and wildly, breathtakingly accomplished, in the best ways.

The title?

Quite early, we meet Bosco, once a skinny, hyperkinetic stage performer guitarist, now an obese wreck. Bosco wants to go out on tour on stage one last time, doing what he once did, but blatantly as he is now: he knows it will kill him.

He tells Stephanie and Jules

“The album’s called A to B, right?” Bosco said. “And that’s the question I want to hit straight on: how did I go from being a rock star to being a fat fuck no one cares about? Let’s not pretend it didn’t happen. […] Time’s a goon, right? Isn’t that the expression?”

Later, Bennie echoes Bosco, telling his ex-bandmate Scotty, who has spent the better part of 50 years a bum

”Time’s a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?”

The novel could quite easily be titled A to B, like Bosco’s album: What happened? What took us from A (then) and turned us into B (now)?

Never having heard the expression “Time’s a goon”, I like to think Jennifer Egan lifted the image from Elvis Costello’s song Goon Squad, off his album Armed Forces, which came out in 1979, the same year the fictional Bennie Salazar connected with the fictional Lou Kline:

I could be a corporal into corporal punishment
Or the general manager of a large establishment
They pat some good boys on the back and put some to the rod
But I never thought they’d put me in the

Goon squad […]

Some grow up just like their dads
and some grow up too tall
Some go drinking with the lads
Some are no fun at all
And you must find your proper place
For everything you see
But you’ll never get to make a lampshade out of me

I danced to that song at my 18th birthday party.

The way I heard it then, and the way I hear it now, Elvis Costello’s song is about paths our lives could take, and our fear that we can’t control how it’ll turn out, and our fear the way it turns out might be completely random, or conversely, that it absolutely might not be: that some of us are born to lose and some are born to survive.

These are themes I read in Jennifer Egan’s book. Among other things, it’s exploring failure and thwarted potential, and unexpected, unlooked for success; the tragedies of getting what you want, or not getting it. It’s shockingly predictive of the #MeToo movement, and predictive, too, of technological change and its effects on human relations (A Visit to the Good Squad was published in 2010).

There were characters I feared for. Please, let them live. Let them live well.

Some pray to survive.

Sometimes I read the ‘B‘ where Egan took individual characters, and sighed in relief. Sometimes I felt sad for where she left them. But if Egan’s book says anything, it says the story ain’t over, until life ends. There’s a recurring motif of sunrises and sunsets. Life ends for only a couple of these characters within the pages of these stories.

Of the arcs I found chilling, Jocelyn’s story stands out. We meet Jocelyn as a beautiful Eurasian 17 year-old Californian punk. In 1979 she has the fortune, or misfortune, to be picked up as a hitchhiker by Lou Kline the hot-shot record producer, in his red Mercedes.

Jocelyn’s friend Rhea (“the girl no one is waiting for. Usually the girl is fat […]”) tells us

“I’m two inches away on my parents’ flowered bedspread while she dials the phone with a black fingernail. I hear a man’s voice answer, and it shocks me that he’s real. Jocelyn didn’t make him up […] He doesn’t go, Hey beautiful, though. He goes, I told you to let me call you.”

Later

“A man is sitting in a round corner booth, smiling teeth at us, and that man is Lou. He looks as old as my dad, meaning forty-three. He has shaggy blond hair, and his face is handsome, I guess, in that way dads can sometimes be.

C’mere, beautiful, Lou actually does say, and he lifts an arm to Jocelyn.”

Before long Lou is forcing Jocelyn’s head up and down on his erect penis as they sit in a public booth in a nightclub. But that’s okay. Already “Lou did some lines off Jocelyn’s bare butt and they went all the way twice, not including when she went down on him”.

It is not always okay. Not once Jocelyn forms a bond with Lou’s eldest, best-loved son, Rolfe.

I’ve met a few Lou’s. Happily, I’ve never had the experiences Jocelyn has. Jocelyn is a fiction, but she reminds me sharply of the actor and activist Rose McGowan writing about her early experiences in L.A., in her autobiography Brave.

Rhea says to Lou

I go, do you even remember being our age?

Lou grins at me in my chair, but it’s a copy of the grin he had at dinner. I am your age, he goes.

Ahem, I go. You have six kids.

So I do, he goes. He turns his back, waiting for me to disappear. I think, I didn’t have sex with this man. I don’t even know him. Then he says, I’ll never get old.

You’re already old, I tell him.

He swivels around and peers at me huddled in my chair. You’re scary, he goes. You know that?

A bit over 20 years later, Rhea and Jocelyn visit Lou at his deathbed, poolside at his mansion, as ever:

Jocelyn, who has lost at least 15 years of her life as a drug addict, and has lost the capacity to love, thinks

“Who is this old man dying in front of me? I want the other one, the selfish, devouring man, the one who turned me around between his legs out here in the wide open, pushing the back of my head with his free hand while he laughed into the phone. […] I have a thing or two to say to that one.”

In the last story, the last episode, Bennie tries to make it up to Scotty, the friend of his youth, for Bennie’s former success and Scotty’s years of failure.

Bennie organises a massive outdoor gig at Ground Zero, where Manhattan’s Twin Towers once stood. The gig has been promoted virally through social media. It’s anybody’s guess how many might show up.

In the event (as they say), the ground is packed. Scotty panics severely:

Scotty shook his head. “The goon won.”

Yet, once forced on-stage, Scotty, who has been under the wire, so to speak, technologically, Scotty, who plays “ballads of paranoia and disconnection ripped from the chest of a man you just knew had never had a page or a profile or a handle or a handset [smartphone], who was no part of anyone’s data, a guy who lived in the cracks all these years, forgotten and full of rage”, is recognised as a signifier of The Authentic, “that now register[s] as pure”.

Scotty has the impact of a musical messiah, a Bob Dylan for the 2020s.

Scotty, who commences his set with songs for children, this future decade’s key trend, a Wiggles for “pointers” (infants) and adults alike, moves onto his punk repertoire from 1979: Eyes in my Head, X’s and O’s, Who’s Watching Hardest, and Jocelyn’s song, What the Fuck?:

You said you were a fairy princess
You said you were a shooting star
You said we’d go to Bora Bora
Now look at where the fuck we are…

Jennifer Egan’s characters each ask: Now look at where the fuck we are.

We are at ‘B‘.

We were there. Now we are here.