Another willing victim of Jennifer Egan's Goon Squad

This is a sort-of response to Katherine Hill's post, Time's a Goon, which was the first place I heard about Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad. I've finally read it, and it's great. And, on the same Sunday that I went kayak-surfing, it compelled me to put pen to paper and jot down what it was making me think about - at the cafe where I had breakfast in Liberty Station, waiting for one of the infrequent San Diego buses, and on the bus itself.

That was a few weeks ago now (and I'd only read half of the book) but at long last, I'm raising the tone of this blog with some literary criticism:

 

Listening

There's a lot of attentive listening to punk in Good Squad, most of it done by Bennie Salazar, the music producer who, along with his onetime assistant Sasha, forms the pair around which the book loosely orbits (this is disputable, but it's how I read it). This intrigues me, because I've always thought of punk as one of the few respectable genres that did genuinely all sound pretty much the same: guitars cranked up until their amps are straining, bass pounding the root of about three chords per song, big finish about two minutes later, and then on to the next one. Because of this, I've never really understood why people listened to lots of different punk bands - I could understand the appeal of the sound, but I didn't think of it as music that rewarded attentive listening. And this is the only book I've ever come across where punk, as a type of music rather than a social milieu, is very important. And there's a really nice quote about what Bennie gets from listening to '70s West Coast punk:

Driving to pick up his son, Bennie alternated between the Sleepers and the Dead Kennedys, San Francisco bands he'd grown up with. He listened for muddiness, the sense of actual musicians playing actual instruments in an actual room. 

'But', Egan adds on the next page, 'the deep thrill of these old songs lay, for Bennie, in the rapturous surges of sixteen-ness they induced.'

That is so spot-on.

There's another moment of listening that stuck with me - when one of the narrators, who is clearly pretty far gone, is describing standing outside a gala event in order to work out whether, as a recluse who read a lot he was experiencing life any differently from people who are having actual experiences, observes that the horn section he can hear coming from inside is 'pretty weak in the tenor sax department'. And by this, you know that whatever's happening to the rest of his mind, he's still musically acute. 

 

Trainspotting

The book that Good Squad most reminds me of is Trainspotting. Not for the drug use, of which there is some in each (though much less in Trainspotting than most people think - as I recall, most of its many narrators are NOT junkies), but because both books are collections of narratives told about (and by) different people, shifting backwards and forwards in time driven by a logic that feels right, but that I'd hate to be asked to explain. So they are both just on the edge of being short story collections, but they are both, unmistakeably, novels.  And in both, the medium offers the same obvious, but startling message: that every life in the world is equally important to the person living it. Novels tend to suggest the opposite, particularly novels by writers as lethal with a putdown as Egan is. But you learn not too laugh too hard at the character who gets dismissed in one chapter, as you're likely to be living in their head a few pages later. 

 

Other than that, I wholeheartedly endorse Katherine's assessment:

Egan, who I'd only encountered in short fiction here and there, is a relentlessly hip and intellectual writer with deep sense of life's pains and an even deeper sympathy for her characters. This sensibility carries her through a layered narrative and more than makes up for the few missteps she inevitably makes along the way. (Hey, novels are messy, okay?)

The thing is, the missteps, like everything in this book, are big, bold, and ambitious. It's just great. You should read it.

Kayak-surfing on La Jolla shores

Kayaks by the La Jolla Caves (you can see the rocky beach on the far left) (photo by Erkmen)

 

 

I’m writing this from San Diego, California, where I'm doing some work at one of my favourite places in the world, High Tech High.

On Sunday I caught a succession of buses to La Jolla (I was inspired to go because it’s mentioned in “Surfin’ USA” by the Beach Boys). Conditions on the beach weren’t great for surfing, and surfing lessons were expensive, so instead I rented a sit-on-top ocean kayak from La Jolla Kayak

At the shop, I was shown a map of the area, and told there was a rocky beach where the waves were treacherous, so I should stay at least 100 feet out. Then I went down to the beach, where they gave me a kayak. Once on the water, I paddled slowly along the coast, admiring La Jolla’s seafront architecture, and the mist clinging to the hill just behind the coastline. When I reached the rock beach I’d been warned about, I saw a solitary kayaker sitting still on the water (probably within the 100-foot perimeter). He looked like he was there with a purpose, and like he knew what he was doing, so I paddled over to him and said hello.

It turned out he was surfing on his kayak. He’d been board surfing since he was 16 (and he was now old enough to sport a bushy grey moustache) and had since become a serious kayaker (he had just returned from two weeks on the Colorado river). Rather than telling me to get lost and let him catch waves in peace, he started teaching me how to do it.

I’ll say now that I wasn’t great at it, but it was a lot of fun. The best wave I caught was my first, and it was accidental. I didn’t ride it elegantly (for one thing, my right leg was hanging out of the kayak for most of the journey) but I hung onto the wave, and stayed upright, 

Having rode the wave, paddling back out turned out to be equally exciting. My new teacher had already told me to keep my kayak absolutely perpendicular when paddling head on into a wave, because any deviation from that would probably capsize the boat. I'd assumed he was  exaggerating for effect, until the first time I paddled into a wave as it was cresting: I felt the kayak go vertical, then slap down onto the trough that the wave left behind it. He was right - had I not been perpendicular to it, I would have tipped out.

Subsequently,  I was able to catch waves, but couldn’t hold onto them. Part of this was inexperience, and part was fear – especially because whenever my teacher caught a good wave he’d right it sideways, then sort of tip backwards through the foam, looking as if he was dragging himself out of the wave. This manoeuvre looked very difficult to me, and it also looked critical to the whole process.

Finally, I caught a wave and properly committed to it –

but before I go on, I want to mention something about catching waves. My relationship to a wave had a narrative: first I’d spot it, literally rising up out of a monotonous seascape. At this moment, I felt like a gold prospector who’s spotted shiny yellow in his sifting pan. Then, if the wave had started cresting at the right moment, and I was in the right position, there would be a sickening moment when I realised that I’d just put myself in the way of a wall of water that was not only rearing up behind me, but sucking the water from out from under me. At this moment, there is nothing to do except to ride the wave, which is an interesting characteristic of all types of surfing: once a wave is right behind you, there is no safer option than riding it:* if you decide “actually, I’d rather not catch this one”, and turn to the side, the wave will flip you over.

So what happened when I properly committed to a wave?

Well, I didn’t stay ahead of it enough, so the curl of the wave grabbed the back of the kayak, and jabbed its front into the water like a needle into fabric. Next thing I knew, I had tumbled into the water. After the wave passed me, I shouted “I’m all right!” to my teacher in a reassuring voice. “Don’t touch bottom!” he shouted back, “There are sea urchins!”

By now I was close to shore, floating in less than two feet of water on a rocky shore, trying to flip a capsized kayak and climb back into it, all without touching the ground. My teacher helped a lot – even so, it was not a straightforward recovery: first I was in the kayak but didn’t have my paddle.  Then I lay down on my stomach and paddled with my hands to reach the paddle. When I got the paddle and tried to return to a sitting position, I went back in the water. Then I got helped into the kayak a second time.

I thought my teacher might be concerned by the potential danger that I clearly presented to both of us. Not in the slightest: “You’ve got to wipe out!” he told me encouragingly.

Not long after this, the waves stopped breaking far out enough for us to catch them. The tide had come in, which meant that the waves were no longer catching on the reef that was directly below us. It was time to move on, and the end of my impromptu lesson.

 

 

*Or, as my teacher did, back-paddling through it, staying motionless as if on a treadmill - though I didn't think I'd be able to manage that particular move.

Buying the prickly pears

A prickly-pear vendor in Morocco (photo by Claude Renault)

 

After the first day, I found out that those spiny fruit being sold off of handcarts all over the city were prickly pear, a seasonal delicacy that seemed to be at the peak of its harvest. 

I bought my first prickly pear from a vendor just outside the Medina (the walled city). I paid five dirham for it (actually, I tried to pay two euros for it, because the last guy who had given me change regarded a two euro coin as equivalent to five dirham. The prickly pear vendor did not share this view. He also didn’t speak French, so he held up the coin and looked angry, and it took an intervention from two of his (French-speaking) fellow-vendors to get it straightened out. The fruit itself was refreshing, if a bit too seedy.

So, I bought more the next day, near Bab Agnaou. This time, I got two for five dirham – the price had halved.

The following night, Briony and I ate in Jemaa al Fna at stall 65 (our favourite), then got a taxi back to Bab Tagzhout where, on Briony’s advice, I followed my dinner with a sandwich of lamb brochettes from a tiny café nearby.

The sandwich was magnificent, and on our way back to our riad, I decided to end the evening with a prickly pear from the cart directly underneath Bab Tagzhout. The vendor told me the price: two prickly pears for five dirham, as I understood it.

‘I’ll take one pear for 3 dirham’, I told him, and gave him the three coins. He nodded, took the coins, and gave me a clear plastic bag. This struck me as unusually fastidious for a prickly-pear vendor, but I held it open for him.

He took a pear, sliced off each end, slit the peel lengthwise, and presented me with the fleshy interior of the fruit. As soon as I took it, he’d lopped off the ends of another one, and, even as I repeated firmly that we’d only wanted one, presented it to Briony.

She thanked him and took it, and instantly he had a third in his hand. ‘Look, I’m not paying you any more,’ I told him, ‘I only asked for one.’ But he continued, this time dropping the peeled fruit into my bag.

Again, he started cutting open another one. ‘NO!’ I shouted, waving my arms wildly in the universal ‘cease and desist’ sign. But once he’d peeled it, there was no obvious option other than to let him drop it into my bag. And as soon as he did, he started peeling another. It was time for decisive action.

‘Right,’ I said, ‘that’s enough, we’re leaving,’ and Briony and I strode off, leaving him with his half-cut prickly pear.

When we were about halfway home, I had a moment of realisation: the vendor hadn’t told me his price was five dirham for two prickly pears, he’d told me it was five prickly pears for one dirham

I’d bought fifteen prickly pears from him, then protested vehemently as he peeled every single one. He sensibly (and graciously) chose to ignore me, and do his best to give me what I’d paid for.

He (and everyone else in the vicinity) must have thought I was completely insane. 

Marrakech Day 3: Buying the bags

Deal complete, the negotiators pose for a photo around the mint tea.

 

On our first day in Marrakech, Briony spotted the shop in the souk (Marrakech’s central labyrinth of shops and market stalls) where she wanted to go to buy her leather satchel – partly because she liked the stock at this particular shop, and partly because the shopkeeper seemed like a good guy.

In fact, there turned out to be two shopkeepers: a short, voluble guy with a close-trimmed beard, and his boss, a friendly but hard-to-read guy, totally bald with some resemblance to a Buddha. Then there was the boss’s son, who was twelve.

Briony was looking for a small satchel, and I was after something that would fit my laptop with plenty of room to spare. Once we reached an impasse in our browsing, unable to choose between several bags, the shorter shopkeeper offered us tea.

He set up a table and three stools in a slipper shop across the street, then briefly disappeared down the street, returned with a pot of tea and two glasses on a tray, and invited us to sit down with him. ‘Now we talk about anything except the bags’, he explained.

This is the slipper shop where it all happened

 

A digression on tea

The process of Moroccan tea is, as with all good caffeinated drinks, burdened with ritual. It’s brewed from Chinese gunpowder green tea and springs of fresh mint, with huge hunks of sugar, broken off from a cake the size of a bar of soap. 

You put everything in the pot and fill it with boiling water, then pour the tea into a glass and empty the glass back into the metal pot, repeating a few times in order to dissolve the sugar.

When it’s time to serve the tea, you lift the pot high as you pour, so the tea travels a foot or more through the air into the glass. This, our host in the slipper shop explained, is done in order to create a layer of bubbles on top of the tea (like the ‘head in a glass of beer) without which some people will refuse the glass (our host told us he personally would never accept tea without bubbles).

Our host served our glasses of tea tucked into (new) children’s slippers lifted from the display racks at the front of the shop, so that we would not burn our fingers on the glass.

The most mysterious element of the ritual was the provenance of the tea itself. I knew he’d need to go out for it, because none of the shops in the souk have back rooms – but I have no idea where he went to get a pot of tea at such short notice.

Correct tea-pouring technique (photo by Banning Eyre)

 

Back to the matter at hand

As we drank, we talked, mostly in French. Our host turned out to be a poet and playwright, as well as a shopkeeper. He writes mostly on ‘political and sentimental themes’,  a phrase which loses a lot in translation.

He’d studied literature and philosophy at the University of Marrakech, with particular attention to the age of enlightenment, but he hadn’t finished, because he couldn’t afford to pay for it.

Now he taught himself. He showed us the poetry he was reading – books of poetry in Arabic, mostly missing their covers, with his marginal comments. Sometimes when he took issue with a poem he would right to the author to discuss it.

I mentioned the Moroccan author Tahar Ben Jelloun, and our host put his hand to his heart and said what a great writer he is. In turn, he spoke of ‘la poesie de la mort’ – the poetry of death. ‘What, like epitaphs?’ I asked. This wasn’t what he was getting at. ‘Like Julia…’ he began –

‘And Romeo?’ I asked. ‘Oui. Ça touche la coeur. Et Titanic.’

‘Le film?’

‘Oui’.

The boss’s son was standing at the entrance to the slipper shop, so I invited him to join us. It transpired that his favourite subject in school is maths, so I showed him the book I was reading, Alex’s Adventures in Numberland. He spoke little French and no English, so it didn’t mean much to him, but he had a look at the pictures.

At one point, our host produced a red piece of felt with the green pentagram from the Moroccan flag, and Morocco's name written (in French and Arabic) in puffy, glittery gold fabric paint, and gave it to us as a gift.

As we chatted, the Buddha-faced boss would stroll into the slipper shop, observe us flipping through books of poetry, chuckle, and shake his head over these non-Arabic-speakers poring over poetry they couldn't read. He’d also shoot expectant looks at our host, and I got the sense felt negotiations could be progressing more swiftly. I wondered if this might be a good cop/bad cop routine, but now I’m not so sure.

 

The negotiation

We’d been in the shop for well over an hour when I said ‘Now I think it’s time to talk about bags.’ Our host told us he’d be happy to drink tea and chat about literature all day, but he knew we’d want to see the sights.

So Briony and I selected the bags we liked best, our host took us to meet the artisan who’d made them (he was just around the corner) and only now, when we’d come back to the slipper shop, did negotiations begin.

They asked us to name the price we wanted to pay. After writing down figures in my notebook, showing them to Briony, and getting the nod from Briony, I started at 400D (that is, four hundred dirhams, or about £31). They laughed and made ‘raise it higher’ gestures. I told them I wasn’t saying anything until I knew their price. They started at 1200D (£92).

What’s difficult to express is how much silence there was in the negotiations, and how important it was – in my case, I needed it in order to make sure I was keeping track of my latest offer, their latest offer, and roughly what both numbers worked out to in pounds sterling. More difficult than silence was the bits of conversation that bled through from our previous chat, throughout which I would silently repeat our two current offers, so I didn’t forget them (easier to do than you might think).

Several times, our host reiterated the point that whether or not we bought anything, we would remain friends – which I appreciated. He also assured us he wouldn’t charge me for the tea, which I appreciated less, since it implied that morally, I was in his debt.

I raised my offer to 550D. Our host laughed – ‘fifty dirhams means nothing!’ he told me.

‘OK,’ I conceded, ‘six hundred dirhams’.

He countered with 1150D. ‘Fifty dirhams means nothing!’ I told him. He laughed even more than before, then clasped my hand. ‘I knew you’d say that!’ he told me.

So now we were at 600D and 1100D.

They told me that Briony’s bag was the last of its kind in the shop. ‘No it’s not,’ I countered, ‘I saw three hanging in the artisan’s workshop!’

‘Those won’t be ready for days,’ they replied.

They told me we had a special price because we were the first customers of the day, because they liked us, because business had been slow. I got the sense that these lines were the negotiation equivalent of pouring mint tea into the glass and back into the pot – not a tactic so much as a necessary element of the ritual.

Briony took our offer up to 800D (£62). Gradually, they came down and finally, our host conceded 800D.

The atmosphere in the room cooled noticeably when our host agreed the price, and for a moment nobody was meeting anybody else’s eye. But our host restored our earlier conviviality after I asked him about Mohammed Mrabet, the Moroccan storyteller. He showed us what he told us was a memorial to Mrabet aross the street, pointed out the ruined old reservoir next to it, and the ruins of a palace (I think) nearby.

Then he took us to look through the window of a mosque (something I’d have never done on my own) and took us to the entrance of the Medersa Ben Youssef.

Then our host, his boss, and the boss’ son posed for photos, and our host and I exchanged email addresses. 

When we happened to pass by the shop later that day, they greeted us like old friends.

From left: our host, the boss's son, and the boss

 

Here's how to find the shop where we got the bags:

Akram Cuir
Place Ben Youssef
Souk El Kbir No. 245 Marrakech
la3badi@yahoo.fr 

Marrakech day two: Directions revisited

A tourist getting the monkey treatment (photo by Laura Aradi - NB: I don't know this guy, but he seems like a good sort)

 

Getting directions is a peculiar experience here. The first thing I want to say is that still, no-one has given us directions and then asked for money. 

A few teenage boys have had a go at guiding us in what I’m certain would be a professional capacity, but they always inform us in alarmed tones that we’re walking away from the Jemaa el Fna (the main square) when we’re going back to our Riad, which they wouldn’t know how to find anyway.

But everyone who has actually given us directions has been polite and  thorough, including a guy who was carrying a monkey – these guys make their money by putting their monkeys on people’s shoulders and having them take photos, but he didn’t make a single attempt to put the monkey onto either of us.

[A digression – it’s impossible for us to watch any of the snake charmers in the Jemaa Al Fna because as soon as we pause near them, somebody tries to put a snake around Briony’s neck so I’ll take a photo, and pay him. Why they think this is an appealing offer is beyond me, but I guess if a guy who has a snake coiled around your wife’s neck asks you for money, you’re likely to be generous].

Back to the guy with the monkey. As I say, he kept the monkey to himself, which was nice of him.

BUT, he confidently sent us in completely the wrong direction (Briony wondered if it might have been because the street he sent us to started with B, as did the place we were trying to find). The monkey guy was not alone in this – even a taxi driver today took us to an odd, ‘sort of right but really a long way off from where we were going’ destination, on a trip that would have been a five minute walk – and he seemed genuinely confused rather than deceitful.

What I’ve begun to realise is that not only do most of the roads not have street signs, and not only do Lonely Planet and the Rough Guide disagree on what some streets are called, but most residents don’t seem to know street names. If anything, they know the name of particular arches (called ‘Babs’). It’s not entirely clear to me how anyone finds their way around.

Marrakech Day 1: directions

Inside the walled city (Medina) of Marrakech (photo by Simon Ward)

P’tit Habibi’s manager, Abdelouaffi, warned us that if we looked lost in the street, we would be accosted by young people offering to guide us, then refusing our payment as offensively low and demanding more. To help us out, he walked us partway to the souks and pointed out landmarks to look out for, and gave us some small change so we had something to give to guides if we needed them (as is probably already clear, I’ve never met a more thoughtful hotel manager than Abdelouaffi).

We haven’t been accosted by teenage guides yet, despite my repeated inspections of our large and difficult-to-fold map (though I’m sure it will happen before too long). On the contrary, when we’ve approached people for directions they have been solicitous, conscientious (two people looked blank, confessed they didn’t know, and then consulted someone more knowledgeable) but they were always partial – they seemed to end with an unspoken ‘and when you’ve got that far, as someone what you should do next’. Or perhaps it’s just that in a city with no right angles, where most roads have no names and different maps disagree about the names of those that do, the phrase ‘follow this road until it ends and then turn right’ is open to multiple interpretations.

At one point, I asked a young man in a café for directions – he in turn asked an older man, then came outside to show me where to go. He took me around the corner, where we discovered that a woman had been knocked off her moped by a taxi. The taxi driver and the woman exchanged strong words in Arabic (even as she remained pinned down by her bike) and another man helped her up and gave her a lift on his bike. Everyone else either honked (if they were in cars) or swerved around (if they were on mopeds) or, as in the case of our guide, took no apparent notice and continued giving directions, making sure we understood what he was telling us. 

Marrakech Day 1: Commerce

Bab Taghzout at night (taken by Mr Libraryman)

 

I have never been anywhere as alive with commerce as Marrakech. Almost as soon as we left our Riad P’tit Habibi, on a sleepy residential street just north of Bab Taghzout, we passed a man in a tiny room whose doors folded out to reveal a brightly painted display of savon noir and argan oil – the man himself was sanding down a very small table. Next, we passed a slender teenager selling spiky green fruit in the shade of an arch. Then beggars outside the courtyard of Zaouia Sidi Bel Abbès (virtually the only beggars we saw all day, and all of them ill or wounded in some way), then down the Rue de Bab Tagzhout, were there were fruit stands in the road and beside the road, and a different business in every doorway – tailors of all sorts,  moped repairs, a man winding purple thread which ran through hooks along the wall for perhaps fifty feet, someone sitting at a makeshift podium made of cigarette boxes (was he selling cigarettes? I have no idea). There were people in rooms full of mysterious objects, with blue plastic tables out front.

Everyone had a business, and no-one had agglomerated – that was what seems most remarkable: nobody is merging. ‘We work for our families, not for a boss’, a Berber spice-seller told me, shortly before selling me a hundred grams of cinnamon for 80 dirham (I’d gamely talked him down from 100 dirham – he scowled theatrically and told me I must have some Berber in me, in a tome that made it clear I’d just been taken to the cleaners.

 

 

 

What it's all about

Here I am, writing in my notebook on our first day

 

Yesterday, I got back from a holiday in Morocco with my partner, Briony. 

I'd brought a notebook along (a Canson 5.5"x8.5" recycled paper sketchbook, if you're into stationary). I brought it along because I always bring a notebook on holiday, and because I didn't want the notebook I brought to be my work notebook (a Black and Red softcover A4 notebook).

On the first day of the trip, I surprised myself by actually writing in the notebook, something I haven't properly done for years. I decided to type it up when I got home, and start a blog. 

From here on out, 'Away from my Desk' will provide a home for observations and thoughts that have nothing to do with what I do at work. Naturally, it will begin with Morocco.