When I first read this quirky book last year, I said I wanted to reread it so that I could pay better attention to the minor characters in each story. I intended this because Egan’s clever technique to tie these stories together is to make a minor character in one story be the primary character in another.
So, this is my second review of this collection, which is really great. If you didn’t run right out and get it after my last review, I urge you to do so now. The stories are hip, aware, funny, and terrifically smart, centering around the music and public relations industries.
The stories in the first half of the book all touch on two characters—Benny Salazar, who is a music business executive when we first encounter him, and Lou, his mentor. The stories move backward and forward in time, so Benny is first at the height of his career but beginning to realize his taste is falling out of fashion. In a later story he is a teenager in a punk band called the Flaming Dildoes. He has several more appearances before making a comeback in his 60’s with a sensational concert starring his old friend Scotty from that first high school band.
Lou is at the height of his powers in one of the earlier stories, when he seduces one of the girls from the Dildoes, Jocelyn. Her friend Rhea watches their behavior in dismay. Later a dying old man, Lou is delighted to receive a visit from Rhea and Jocelyn, together again after years. But Jocelyn fights an urge to push him into the swimming pool as she considers her 30 years of wasted life as a drug addict, started on her way by Lou when she was 17.
The funniest stories skewer the public relations field. Dolly, once the premier public relations agent in New York (and the boss of Benny Salazar’s wife), has given up her career after a disastrous party she planned. Her brilliant idea to suspend translucent pans of colored oil from the ceiling near spotlights so that the oil would move as it heated was ruined when the plastic pans melted, sending hot oil down to burn all the celebrities. She sees an opportunity to revive her career in a job rehabilitating the reputation of a brutal third-world general. Even though this job almost ends in a murder, when her strategy actually works, she is contacted by a slew of dictators and assorted thugs wanting to hire her.
The has-been starlet Dolly used as the general’s “girlfriend” is the focus in her early career of a hilarious vituperative mock PR piece by the journalist who physically attacked her during an interview (Benny Salazar’s troubled brother-in-law). And finally, a short time in the future, Benny Salazar brings together his smash concert by appealing to the tastes of babies (“pointers,” as they are termed by the marketeers) and using the equivalent of likes on Facebook.
I understood a few things better on rereading the book. In an interview, Jennifer Egan said the stories were about pauses. One of them, a delightful Powerpoint presentation written by a preteen girl (the daughter of Benny Salazar’s ex-assistant Sasha, whose story is the first one in the book), talks about her little brother’s fascination with the pauses in rock music. In the book, we revisit the characters at different times in their lives, after pauses when we don’t see them. This approach leads us to consider the events of their life that we don’t see. Finally, there is the title, explained by the remark of a character. “Time is a goon.”