By Jennifer Egan
A note of caution: The bizarre chronology and multiple perspective shifts of this Pulitzer Prize Winner (which some have called a collection of linked short stories) makes for a chapter-by-chapter guide that is just as hard to follow. In short, we tried.
Chapter 1: Found Objects
We meet Sasha, a kleptomaniac. She is seeing a psychiatrist, Coz, who is helping her work through her problems. On a date with a man named Alex she steals a note from his wallet that says, “I believe in you.”
Quote: “I’m always happy,” Sasha said. “Sometimes I just forget.”
Question: Have you ever stolen something?
Chapter 2: The Gold Cure
Bennie enters the picture. He is a record producer and Sasha is his assistant. He sprinkles gold flakes in his coffee to try and revive his sex drive and applies bug spray to his armpits after an unfortunate lice incident with his son. He tells Sasha he loves her, but she does not reciprocate his feelings.
Quote: “This is the music business. ‘Five years is five hundred years.'”
Question: How far would you go to retain your youth?
Chapter 3: Ask Me If I Care
This chapter is told by Rhea, who is in high school. Her best friend is Jocelyn. They hang out with Scotty, a young Bennie, and Alice — all of them are in the band, The Flaming Dildos. Jocelyn meets Lou, a record producer, while hitchhiking and later runs away with him. Rhea makes the change from childhood to being an adult in the space of one coke-filled, sexually charged weekend.
Quote: ” … I’ve never seen a blacker sky or a brighter moon, and I realize that I’m beginning my adult life right now, on this night.”
Question: What makes someone punk? Is that even a thing?
Chapter 4: Safari
Lou, his girlfriend Mindy (who will become ex-wife number three) and two of his children, Charlie and Rolph, are on safari. They are also traveling with members of the band the Mad Hatters; Dean, an actor; and a young girl named Lulu. While watching a family of lions, Chronos (bassist for the Mad Hatters) leaves the vehicle and is mauled by a lioness.
Quote: “Women are crazy,” he says. “You could spend a goddamn lifetime trying to figure out why.”
Question: What surprised you most in this chapter — the lion attack, Charlie joining a cult, Mindy finally getting her Ph.D., or Rolph committing suicide? All of the above?
Chapter 5: You (Plural)
Bennie reaches out to Jocelyn and Rhea in Lou’s final days. When they were young, Jocelyn had a secret relationship with Rolph (remember, he’s Lou’s son). When she finds out Rolph committed suicide, Jocelyn daydreams of killing Lou (who she once ran away with).
Quote: “How did you get so old? Was it all at once, in a day, or did you peter out bit by bit?”
Question: How do you picture yourself in old age?
Chapter 6 – X’s and O’s
Scotty reads about Bennie’s success as a record producer. He goes to Bennie’s office and makes him uncomfortable. It’s clear Scotty has mental health problems. Scotty wants to know what made Bennie successful while he himself is divorced from Alice and now lives alone working as a janitor. Later, Scotty gives Bennie’s business card to a couple of young junkies.
Quote: “I’d been out of the game a long time, but I could spot a musician anywhere.”
Question: Do you think Bennie and Scotty were ever really friends?
Chapter 7 – A to B
Bennie and Stephanie move to the suburbs and join a country club full of bigots. Stephanie’s brother, Jules, a writer, is released from jail and comes to live with them. While checking on Stephanie’s client, Boscoe, Jules is given the job of covering Boscoe’s Suicide Tour. Stephanie finds evidence of Bennie cheating on her.
Quote: ” . . . how better to mark success than by going to a place where you didn’t belong?”
Question: Would you rather fade away gracefully being remembered at your best or go out with a bang at your worst.
Chapter 8 – Selling the General
Dolly is given the job or running PR for The General, a dictator who has committed genocide. She was once known as La Doll, but after a disastrous party she had to try and reinvent herself. Dolly goes to visit The General with her daughter, Lulu, and Kitty, a B-list actress who once accused a reporter of rape. Kitty is taken hostage by The General. Dolly and her daughter Lulu go back to New York where she later opens a gourmet store with hush money from The General.
Quote: “How could a man in a fuzzy blue hat have used human bones to pave his roads?”
Question: Do you think Dolly should have taken the hush money? How much money would it take for you to keep quiet in a similar situation?
Chapter 9 – Forty Minute Lunch
Jules writes an article from prison about his interview with Kitty, a movie star. She is nice but he prefers actors who are awful because they make a more interesting story. He tries to get a reaction out of Kitty. It becomes clear Jules is mentally unstable. He attacks Kitty in Central Park with the intent of raping then killing her. Kitty gets away.
Quote: “I apologize for whatever part I played in your emotional breakdown,” she wrote, ‘and also for stabing [sic] you.”
Question: How does Jules see himself as the victim?
Chapter 10 – Out of Body
Rob is hanging out smoking weed with his friends Lizzie, Bix, Drew and Sasha. People have been treating him differently since he tried to commit suicide. He is struggling with his sexuality; it makes him feel anxious and aggressive. Rob fights with Lizzie over her racist parents. Rob and Sasha have a genuine friendship; she even tells him she was a prostitute in Naples. Rob is confused about his feelings for Drew. The two boys go swimming in the East River at night and Rob drowns.
Quote: I’ll be curled around your heart for the rest of your life . . .”
Question: Do you think Rob was subconsciously trying to kill himself by swimming in the river?
Chapter 11 – Goodbye, My Love
Ted has been paid by Sasha’s step-father, Hammer, to look for her. She went missing two years ago when she was seventeen, and has a history of addiction and self-harm. Ted finds Sasha in Naples. She robs him and leaves him at a club. He finds her apartment in a rundown area of the city instead of the affluent neighborhood she had told him she lived. Years later Sasha will reconnect with her college boyfriend (Drew) get married, and have two children.
Quote: “He sensed between them an understanding too deep to articulate: the unspeakable knowledge that everything is lost.”
Question: Who do you suspect is Sasha’s step-father?
Chapter 12 – Great Rock and Roll Pauses
Sasha’s daughter, Alison, has a diary in the form of a PowerPoint. Her father, Drew, is a doctor. He became a doctor after he couldn’t save Rob from drowning. Drew has trouble connecting with his son, Lincoln, who is on the autism spectrum. Lincoln is obsessed with rock songs that have pauses within them. Sasha’s brother, Jules, wrote a book about an aging rocker everyone thought was going to die but instead now owns a dairy farm.
Quote: “The pause makes you think the song will end. And then the song isn’t really over, so you’re relieved. But then the song does actually end, because every song ends, obviously, and THAT. TIME. THE. END. IS. FOR. REAL.”
Question: Can you think of a song that utilizes the pause? How does the pause present itself in other parts of your life?
Chapter 13 – Pure Language
Alex is meeting with Bennie. He recognizes Bennie’s name from something a girl he dated said years ago, but he doesn’t remember Sasha’s name. Music is evolving from being about sound to how you promote bands through social media. They listen to Scotty’s album which is popular with “pointers,” specifically young children. Lulu is now Bennie’s assistant and helps Alex with marketing.
Quote: Ancent hstry
Question: How do you think social media is influencing the way we find music today? Is it for better, or for worse?