Prof. Torg’s take on Jennifer Egan’s A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD

If you have a Facebook page, own one of the latest cell phones, blog, or tweet, then you ought to at least check out chapter 13 in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad.  In the following quote from the last chapter, a once big-time music executive laments about the state of the business.  Feel free to substitute ART in the place of MUSIC.  Here’s Bennie:

“The problem is,” Bennie went on, “it’s not about sound anymore.  It’s not about music.  It’s about reach.  That’s the bitter pill I had to swallow” (page 312).

Whose taste in art is for sale?

So when Bennie says “reach,” he’s talking Tweets, he’s talking Facebook Friends, and he’s talking hits on somebody’s blog.  The last chapter takes place in the future—and she could just almost be talking about right now—we all have to wonder if a book or album or any kind of art is really good or it’s just being promoted very well.  What is the Tweeter getting paid to say that this new artist is the next Bob Dylan?  What perks or gifts have been sent the book blogger’s way?  I just attended a BEA blogging panel where there was talk of ethics in the blogging world.

It may or may not have occurred to you that a novel can pay-off in various ways:  you can be made to feel as if you get to know the characters like people, the text can make you think, cause you to believe you are getting smarter, or make you bawl your eyes out or want to break stuff.  Another pleasing feature of a text can be the language, the words the writer chooses and the ways that the writer puts the words together in the form of sentences.  Egan’s text has that feature.  There are sentences beyond this one that would make for better examples of word choice but there are some original choices here—prewallet, overhandled, Sow’s Ear—and the clever detail of the guy who drinks flakes of gold.  An expensive habit, especially these days when an ounce of the stuff would cost over $1500.  This quote comes from the first story (notice also that it is a long sentence, not an always easy thing to pull off) when Sasha remembers stealing a wallet from a woman in the restroom while she was on a date.  We’ll also hear about Bennie here and we get to see him in the stories that follow.  He’s worth meeting.  Now here’s Egan’s sentence:

“Prewallet, Sasha had been in the grip of a dire evening:  lame date (yet another) brooding behind dark bangs, sometimes glancing at the flat-screen TV, where a Jets game seemed to interest him more than Sasha’s admittedly overhandled tales of Bennie Salazar, her old boss, who was famous for founding the Sow’s Ear record label and who also (Sasha happened to know) sprinkled gold flakes into his coffee—as an aphrodisiac, she suspected—and sprayed pesticides in his armpits.”

I tore that brown thing out on the side and used it as a bookmark.

This is a novel-in-stories, and I loved the first two.  I moved very logically with Sasha the kleptomaniac to her once boss Bennie in the second story who drinks the gold flakes and picks up his son from a previous marriage.  Most of the characters in the book are connected to the music business.  Egan almost lost me on the third story which takes place on an African Safari.  I felt internally frustrated as I was reading and trying to link each new story to the ones which had come before it.  On page eighty-seven, I wrote in the margins:  “I don’t know what the hell is going on or where I am.”

I gave up on trying to connect the stories and just tried to live in each one as a separate world.  I’d say this reading tactic helped, but really I think what happened is the stories got more interesting.  There were many good stories in a row and then on page two hundred and eight, I knew right where I was.  The stories were puzzling together.  I could see where all the pieces might go.  And then Chapter 12 is a Power-Point slide journal.  I don’t generally go for the story that could be called gimmicky.

I was just at a Writers Conference at Wesleyan University in Connecticut and most of the table moaned when I held up the book and showed off some of the slides.  One student is doing an MFA graphic novel thesis.  Suddenly, she was more interested in the book, and another guy at the table said, “I’ll never read a story like that.”

Fine, readers have their tastes I guess.  For me, Egan and The Goon Squad had won me over by the time the Power Point came up.  By the fifth slide I was laughing and my wife was wondering what was up.  It’s great the way I was taught by the text how to read it.  I say Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad is one you ought to read if you’ve got grown up and thinking tastes in reading.  I do.

Citation Information:

Egan, Jennifer. A Visit From the Goon Squad. New York: Anchor Books,    2011. Print.

Drop me a note if you want:

william.torgerson (at) gmail.com

How Would You Define “Retro” and “Indie”?

My questions for Lori  Hettler, author of The Next Big Book Blog:

I see you say you are interested all things, “retro.”  What do you mean?

I am a product of my generation. I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s… my fondest memories include Cabbage Patch Kid dolls (and those god-awful but so cool Garbage Pail Kids stickers!), slinkys, Pogo-balls, French cuffed Z-cavaricci’s , teased out hair, cassette tapes, the Fraggles, Sea Monkeys, and the Rubik’s Cube.  Today’s music cannot touch the stuff that came out of the 80’s – I’m talking about bands like R.E.M., U2, The Smiths, Depeche Mode, New Order, and The Cure.  Movies like The Goonies, Labyrinth, Say Anything, The Breakfast Club, Stand By Me – they are untouchable, they stand the test of time.

Retro according to TNBBC: Stand by Me

I love books that steep themselves in retro-ness – books like High Fidelity by Nick Hornby, Totally Killer by Greg Olear, Less Than Zero by Brett Easton Ellis, Banned for Life by D.R. Haney. Reading books like the ones I’ve just named gives me that “home-coming” feeling, you know?

What does the word “indie” mean to you and why is it important?

In the traditional sense, I believe Indie was coined for independent publishers, small press, and the authors who sign with them. Some indie publishers, like Graywolf Press, are non-profit. Most, like Two Dollar Radio, were (and still are) small start-up operations that have created a niche for themselves. A growing number, like Tiny TOE Press, Artistically Declined, and Curbside Splendor, are being brought to life by the authors themselves – authors who, due to personal choice or lack of interest from already existing publishers, decided to stand behind their work and present it to the masses on their own terms. I think, because of this increase of author-turned-publisher, the lines between indie and self published have blurred. Many self published authors are now referring to themselves as indie authors. And in a certain light, I suppose they can be. They are independent of contracts, and restrictions. They own the rights to their work. They can tour and promote as they wish. But I would say that only applies if they created their own company by which to publish their work.

Indie Press: Cherokee McGhee, publisher of William Torgerson's "Love on the Big Screen"

Indie can also be looked at as a way of life. It’s staying true to yourself, and your writing. It’s hanging in for the long haul. It’s not selling out. Indie publishers and authors are extremely important to the literary community. Because they are not caught under the umbrella of larger corporations and conglomerates, they have full control over which books they publish. They push the limits, they challenge their readers, they can afford to take chances on experimental, edgy fiction. They can offer their authors one-on-one attention. They throw wild and crazy events, and they rely heavily on word of mouth – The indie publishers and authors I have worked with are extremely receptive and welcoming of the support the blogging community gives them. Some of the best novels I have ever read were written by indie authors and published by indie publishers.

Support Indie Bookstores and Publishers: Click here

What was the impulse to start The Next Best Book Club Blog?

I started The Next Best Book Club blog when I realized that my Goodreads group (of the same name) had gotten too large, and my voice within the group had become too small. I needed a larger space, a space of my own – one that I didn’t have to share – to discuss my love of independent literature. I wanted to be able to showcase and highlight not only the books I read, but also the people behind those books, the authors and publishers. I wanted to introduce the world to what they were missing, to the great stories I felt they were overlooking. The blog and Goodreads group overlap by design, but it’s nice to have something that is just me, just my voice, sometimes.

Lori Hettler The Next Best Book Club

Lori Hettler writes The Next Best Book Club Blog

Click Here to Link up with Lori Hettler and the Next Best Book Blog Club

An Elevator Pitch for HORSESHOE

Love on the Big Screen Flannery O'Connor Milledgeville Georgia College and State University

The Theater Pictured on Cover is in Milledgeville, Georgia. Home to Georgia College and Flannery O'Connor

There’s a big difference between what I learned doing an MFA Degree in Creative Writing at a place like Georgia College and what I’ve learned being in New York, reading for a literary agency, and beginning to hang around literary business types here.  Both experiences (my MFA and living here) have worked together to teach me a lot of what I want and need to know.

What I needed right away for life in NYC was an elevator pitch.  In other words, I needed to be able to summarize in one sentence what my book was about.  For Love on the Big Screen, it didn’t take me so long to come up with this:  Love on the Big Screen tells the story of Zuke, a college freshman whose understanding of love has been shaped by late-eighties romantic comedies.  People usually responded to this line with a laugh and publishing and film reps usually requested to read more after hearing that one sentence.

Love on the Big Screen Flannery O'Connor Milledgeville Georgia College and State University Winamac, Indiana, Horseshoe

Horseshoe will be set in a fictionalized Winamac, Indiana

So here I go again with a new book and a new need for 1 sentence summaries and a short synopsis.  Here’s where I am at:

In the rural town of Horseshoe, where everyone knows everybody else’s business, the lives of its citizens intertwine for thirteen bizarre tales of faith, sin, guilt, and deliverance.  Think:  Flannery O’Connor’s “Misfit” Fiction Meets Pulp Fiction.

Any of that catch your attention?

And here’s the short synopsis:

The little town of Horseshoe becomes the protagonist in this unique novel-in-stories format that bucks against the boundaries of time and asks readers to make the connections to put the story together.  The book initiates in the local grocery store where a churchwoman named Pam Scott delivers judgment on a philandering butcher.  Pam returns home, a place where each night she faces what is either a figment of her imagination or an increasingly terrifying knocker.  In this little town where everyone knows everybody else’s business, the lives of its citizens intertwine for thirteen bizarre tales of faith, sin, guilt, and deliverance.

I wrote both the one-sentence summary and the short synopsis in conversation with the team at Cherokee McGhee.  As I say in class all the time, “Writing Floats on a Sea of Conversation.”  Without conversation, I don’t have much to say.  If you’ll look over there to the right of the page, you’ll find all the virtual places where we might chat up reading, writing, and teaching.

Cherokee McGhee, Love on the Big Screen, Horseshoe, William Torgerson, Tarantino, O'Connor, Pulp Fiction, 80s, Lloyd Dobler, Farmer Ted, John Hughes

Cherokee McGhee Press: publisher of Love on the Big Screen and Horseshoe

Upcoming Appearances

Saturday, February 26     Storrs, Connecticut.  Saturday Seminar with the Connecticut Writing Project on Research Writing.

Tuesday, March 1               Kankakee, Illinois.  Reading at Olivet Nazarene University.  7:00

Tuesday, March 8              Logansport, Indiana.  Author Reading at the Nest.  11:00.

Saturday, March 5.           Winamac, Indiana.  Author Reading at the Town Library.  1:00.

Saturday, March 12.         Fort Wayne, Indiana.  Book signing at Firefly Coffee Shop.  10:00.

Saturday, March 26.         Montclair State New Jersey.  New Jersey Council For Teachers of English.  Presentation.

Friday, May 13-15.            Jefferson, Texas.  The Fred McKenzie Storytelling Book Festival

In Answer to Some Questions about John Hughes and Love on the Big Screen

William Torgerson Love on the Big Screen Cusack Say Anything

Cusack Works the Phone For a Date in Say Anything

Part of the pleasure of writing Love on the Big Screen was that it caused me to revisit many of the films that I watched between the ages of 14 and 19, and many of those films are mentioned in connection to movies that my protagonist Zuke admires:  Sixteen Candles, Say Anything, Weird Science, Dead Poet’s Society, and Pretty in Pink. The idea for writing this book came as a surprise and it came during one of the writing classes I teach at St. John’s University.  We write almost every class session and most of the time I write along with the students.  Some days we write whatever comes to mind, (actually that’s always an option) and some days I make suggestions.  For example, I might ask students to try a moving story, a relationship story, or perhaps that they write about a place they know well.  Sometimes these experiments are specific to a part of writing as in the opening paragraph.  I think on the day I conceived of Zuke’s story, we were talking about writing a sentence that could be amplified and by that I mean that I open with a sort of summary sentence which I can then spend the rest of the writing trying to explain and develop.  I wrote something like this:  Everything Zuke knew about love he knew from the movies, most of them late-eighties romantic comedies.  Even though I’d already done the research for another book, I thought I had something with that sentence. I could see it being set at the fictional version of where I earned my undergraduate degree.  It would be some sort of love story, and all I had to do was figure out who Zuke was, who he was in love with, and who the other characters in the story would be.  One other short note:  A friend of mine has the last name Zaucha and so that’s where “Zuke” came from, but there isn’t much else about my Zuke that is like my friend.

William Torgerson Love on the Big Screen Weird Science Anthony Michael Hall

Gary and Wyatt Work Their Magic

I’m reluctant to call it research (maybe the lesson here is that research is fun and interesting if you’ve chosen the right topic) but what I did next was to go back and watch all those movies that had been my favorites growing up.  Here’s a couple of my first reactions:  I thought many of the movies were much sillier than I’d remembered.  A movie such as Weird Science held up for me pretty well in the sense that when the guys create Kelly LeBrock’s character with the bras on their heads, that was still pretty funny, and one of my favorite scenes is when the boys are at the mall, they’ve brought LeBrock with them, they’ve got some new duds, and for the first time in their lives they don’t feel like total dweebs.  Then some of the most popular guys in the school stand over them (one is Robert Downey Jr.) and drop giant frozen slurpees onto their heads.  Moment in the sun over.  On the other hand, that I was into this movie enough to go to five nights in a row with my buddy “Tank” as a middle school student was kind of embarrassing.  I didn’t find as much in the film to be devoted to as I would, say, in one of my favorite authors.  Mostly, I’ll give myself a break.  I was probably fourteen when I first saw it.

William Torgerson The Breakfast Club Molly Ringwald Judd Nelson

The Kiss at the End of the Movie

My memory of the 80s romantic comedies was that a boy spotted a girl he fell in love with, he pursued her, there was a spot of trouble, the rival was vanquished, and then there was a happy-ending kiss at the end.  Part of me wants to say that the movies were more complex than that.  Judd Nelson’s burnout character was physically abused.  I think Hall’s character in The Breakfast Club considered suicide.  There was the suicide in Dead Poet’s Society, but also there were so many kisses at the end.  And then I think the really key factor for me was that they never showed what happened after the first kiss.  I didn’t really think about that much until I was about thirty and divorced.  Certainly Zuke doesn’t think about this at first.  He only goes for the gal and hopes for the kiss which will signal the start of a good life.  Now, at least for those of us who have been in long relationships or been married or divorced, we’ve learned to think of that kiss at the end of the movie (the first kiss of a relationship) as just the first baby-step of a tall mountain climb.  I don’t mean to make it sound so hard–often it isn’t–I just mean that the first kiss is far from the end.  Duh, but somehow my teenage self didn’t know it.  And, although what I’m saying here is so obvious, how many people do we know who seem to long for that movie romance that they don’t feel they have in their real-life relationship?

The Real Life Inspiration for my Fictional Pison College (picture from kingtypepad.com)

As far as John Hughes’s movies and Love on the Big Screen go, what I set out to do was subvert what I thought were the conventions of romantic comedies.  I wanted to suspend my own understanding of life and try to become Zuke in my mind, a twenty year old who thought if he worked hard enough and displayed the right amount of romantic spirit (see Cusack’s boom box over his head) that he would in the end, “get the girl.”  I wasn’t particularly obsessed with the Hughes movies.  I think my favorite films were Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything, Peter Weir’s Dead Poet’s Society, and Sixteen Candles because I really enjoyed Anthony Michael Hall’s character.  So I don’t see myself as someone who comes after Hughes and only after Hughes, but as I re-watched his films and learned about his life, there started to be more connections between my protagonist’s Zuke’s story and the stories John Hughes told.  I think one of the most significant might be the Midwestern/Chicago area setting.  Hughes lived in Chicago and he set a lot of his stuff in fictional Shermer, Illinois.  So as I wrote and continued to learn about Hughes, I was able to–I think–put in a lot of little “treats” in the book for those who know their Hughes.  For example, my character Pee Wee names his pet after the big brother in Weird Science, Chet.

 

William Torgerson Weird Science John Hughes Chet Kelly LeBrock

"Chet" as transformed in Weird Science