The Short Version: “Time’s a goon, right?” – Bennie Salazar. Music, love, death, life, money, New York City, time. A collection of interconnected short stories about people involved, even peripherally, in the music business. But really? A collection of stories about us.
The Review: I’m not even sure that I can approach this book in any rational way at the moment. I just finished it and felt the need to get some of my thoughts out but I’m having trouble marshaling them.
This book felt like Jennifer Egan decided to write me a love letter – not a romantic love letter, mind you, but a letter very specifically addressed to the me of right now, the me living in this incredibly unique moment both in the history of the world and in my own personal history. Sure, there are aspects of the book that aren’t for the me of right now – a lot of the scenes between parents and children specifically, but these are scenes that really leapt out at Anthony Doerr over at The Tournament of Books on Friday in the same way that other scenes leapt out at me. Instead, it’s about the bigger idea behind this book.
I really didn’t know what I was getting into with this book. Obviously I’ve heard all of the good buzz and I knew it vaguely had something to do with the music industry and that there was a chapter written as a PowerPoint presentation. This was really the extent of my knowledge – a wonderful thing, considering how hard it is to keep the plot of a book under wraps even before it comes out, let alone many months and awards later. Of course, there isn’t really a plot to this book. Not in the traditional scene, anyway. Certainly, there is – it’s the story of (loosely) Bennie Salazar and the people who came into and out of his life. He’s the center of the story, anyway – because everyone else somehow connects to him. But those connections might be secondary, tertiary, even (I think) reaching four-times-removed.
These are stories about us. About those of us living right now. It reaches back into the past a bit – when rock stars were rock stars, you know? – and sends out tendrils into the future, too… but at its heart, it is about New York and it is about now.
I can’t even really explain this book except to say that I feel this lump in my throat and these tears in my eyes over a story that I can’t even entirely explain. This idea of time… the book made me feel very much like I felt upon seeing J. B. Priestley’s Time and the Conways at the National Theatre in London a few years ago. That play, the story of a family that goes from the 19teens to the 30s and then back to the same night the play started on… Rupert Goold’s production added this sense of time being relative in the sense that the past and the present and the future are all on a continuum. They are all continually existing, simultaneously. This book made me feel the same way. We jump forward and back, seeing individuals in their childhood, then their adulthood, then in college, then in old age, then in early adulthood… but we get the sense that each of these present-tense moments is intrinsically connected not just to the past but to the future as well. Not in a deterministic way, nothing like that – but instead, this sense that time is happening all at once. That these lives – that our lives – are happening then, now, and tomorrow all at the same time.
There is a circular feeling to this novel, in that you could (I firmly believe) flip right back to the first page upon reading the last word and things would just continue. Sure, you already know that “oh, right, next up is the story where the guy gets mauled by the lion” or “two stories from now comes the PowerPoint and the one after that is in a vaguely-Shytengartian future” but I think, in a lot of ways, it might only enhance everything. The Alex from the first story reappears and has these flashes of memory of a girl he once knew… and that last scene with him and Bennie standing outside of Sasha’s old apartment and seeing “another girl, young and new to the city” – just this feeling of things always moving on. Things will always continue. We will always continue.
“And the hum, always that hum, which maybe wasn’t an echo after all, but the sound of time passing.” That’s how it feels to live in New York City. It isn’t a sad or depressing thing. It is an uplifting, wondrous thing. And as much as the book is about what it is to live in New York City – because New York is a huge, integral character in this novel – it is about more than that. It is, at the risk of repeating myself but I’m rambling on and cannot stop and have to say this, about us, today. It is about what it means to be alive today. Not in the uplift-y way that Lifetime or something might use that phrase, but at a more basic level. That feeling you get when you think about the people you’ve known and the people you do know and the things you do and the places you go and the life you live. That’s what this book is about.
Rating: 6 out of 5. A thing of beauty. Marrying rock and roll to literature, like a love letter straight to me today. The thoughts and feelings this book inspires… sitting alone at 22 on a couch in the East Village in 2011 and thinking about what it means to be all of those things and what it means to be whatever I will eventually be and what it means to be what I have been. Maybe you’ll think this all sounds like a great big “Within You Without You” drug trip – and if that’s so, maybe this book isn’t your cup of tea. But I can count on two hands the number of books that have so boldly captured me with their immediacy but also the profound sense of not-being-the-same after having read them. Read this book.