Monday, August 6, 2012

Review: A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan

Every now and then a book comes along that feels like a game changer, that so completely rewires the way you think about fiction and what it’s capable of, that re-energizes your belief in the power of literature. A Visit from the Good Squad, Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “novel” from 2010, is one of those books for me. It has been a huge topic of conversation between RR and me around our house here, as we have both read it over the last month or so and have equally become enamoured of it.

A big part of the love for me is structural. The reason I put “novel” in quotes above is that while Goon Squad is marketed as a novel, it really is a collection of interconnected short stories. “Linked” collection seems too weak, and even interconnected seems inadequate. It’s probably better to say it’s a collection of intersecting and interwoven short stories that achieve the broader arc of a true novel.

Egan’s incredible feat of temporal game-playing really puts to shame any other interconnected short story collection I’ve read. The 13 stories that compromise Goon Squad take place over about a 45-year period: from about the early 1970s in the fourth story, “Safari”, to the near-future, sometime around the year 2020, in the last two stories. The pieces are organized out of chronological order and are written from 13 separate points of view. Yet it does form a single cohesive narrative, one that does not become fully apparent until you’re well into the book.

The intersection of the characters’ lives is what gives this book a lot of its narrative torque. Rather than summing up how the lives of the various protagonists of Goon Squad overlap with one another, let me simply refer you to the 2010 New York Times review of the book, which did it far better than I could:  

The book starts with Sasha, a kleptomaniac, who works for Bennie, a record executive, who is a protégé of Lou who seduced Jocelyn who was loved by Scotty who played guitar for the Flaming Dildos, a San Francisco punk band for which Bennie once played bass guitar (none too well), before marrying Stephanie who is charged with trying to resurrect the career of the bloated rock legend Bosco who grants the sole rights for covering his farewell “suicide tour” to Stephanie’s brother, Jules Jones, a celebrity journalist who attempted to rape the starlet Kitty Jackson, who one day will be forced to take a job from Stephanie’s publicity mentor, La Doll, who is trying to soften the image of a genocidal tyrant because her career collapsed in spectacular fashion around the same time that Sasha in the years before going to work for Bennie was perhaps working as a prostitute in Naples where she was discovered by her Uncle Ted who was on holiday from a bad marriage, and while not much more will be heard from him, Sasha will come to New York and attend N.Y.U. and work for Bennie before disappearing into the desert to sculpture and raise a family with her college boyfriend, Drew, while Bennie, assisted by Alex, a former date of Sasha’s from whom she lifted a wallet, soldiers on in New York, producing musicians (including the rediscovered guitarist Scotty) as the artistic world changes around him with the vertiginous speed of Moore’s Law.

If this complex interlacing of characters turns you off, don’t let it. There is so much else to love about Goon Squad. The theme here is the passage of time—time being the goon referred to in the title—and about how lives can grow and then wither, how aging awaits us all, and how both crushing failure and exalted moments of success can be waiting right around the corner for us at any moment.

In laying down the lives of these characters, Egan shows an incomprehensible amount of versatility in her writing. She can do young and old; she can do male and female voices; she can do first-, second- and third-person narration to great effect. She can also write in a variety of modes: while the majority of the pieces here are written in traditional realism, one is done entirely as a PowerPoint slide deck (and, strangely, is one of the most emotionally powerful stories in the collection); another is done as a piece of very effective gonzo journalism. Indeed, finishing the last page of Goon Squad, you’re left with the impression that this book must have been written by not one writer, but seven or eight writers—all incredibly talented.

There is no higher compliment to pay a writer than to say his or her book alters the way you’ll look at subsequent books you’ll read. But I can definitely say this about Goon Squad: it has wrecked the curve for other short story collection professing to be linked, interconnected or otherwise intertwined.

Related reading

Allow me to point you in the direction of a few other books that play similar games with either time, intersecting stories, or both. While Goon Squad tops them all, these other titles are definitely worth reading:

  • Lord Nelson Tavern, by Ray Smith. (What Smith does in this 1974 novel is very similar to what Egan does. See my lengthy essay about this book in CNQ #81.)
  • Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell.
  • Time’s Arrow, by Martin Amis. (Not about intersecting stories per se, but definitely a novel that has a lot of fun telling a story out of order.)  

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