Another book that has been on my to-read list for some time was Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad. Like everyone else I hadn’t heard of her a little over a year ago, but her profile has rocketed since winning the 2011 Pulitzer with this novel. I didn’t find it a perfect read, but it was enjoyable, and unlike many literary novels these days it was a fairly quick read.
The book sits somewhere between a novel and a collection of short stories. Each chapter is a self contained story, following a diverse cast of interconnected characters, and together they build a thematic story of life in the modern world. Unlike true short stories, most of them need the context of the other stories to impart meaning. It isn’t just that they would lack emotional resonance, more that without the character information you have already built up over the course of the book, a reader would be somewhat lost reading later chapters on their own. While some connections are obvious, Egan weaves her stories together with a lot of detail. After finishing the book I went back to the first chapter and picked up on numerous references to other chapters. I imagine the level of detail in the book would reward rereading.
The book begins with Sasha, in her mid thirties, assistant to Bennie Salazar, a music producer. These two are the characters that probably pop up most often throughout the book. We slide along the time scale of their lives, meeting Bennie as a teenage punk, and as an ageing manager in a near future, trying one last time for success. We also get to know Bennie’s mentor Lou, the teenage girls he seduces, and his dysfunctional family. We have sub-plots involving dictators, mentally ill addicts, and sexual coercion. Yet Egan also finds some real heart and light in sections. The ‘Goon Squad’ of the title is a reference to the way life can beat you up sometimes.
Time’s a goon, right?
Her characters makes mistakes, screw up relationships, pass years in a haze of drugs and eventually realise life is passing them by. Occasionally Egan throws them a bone, and the moments of redemption, the hint of better things to come in their life is what stops this being a funny, but ultimately depressing book, and turns it into something with a soul.
The most memorable chapter is the novel’s most famous, because it sounds so gimmicky: a powerpoint presentation, taking up sixty pages. It is the slide journal of Sasha’s daughter, documenting her parents, her obsessive younger brother and all her family’s foibles. It is a brilliant chapter. Individually it tells a beautiful story of family: of the love that holds people together even when they drive you mad. They are by no means perfect, but in documenting the at times dysfunctional relationship between father and son Egan cuts to the essence of family. To the book as a whole it is also important. Sasha appears in a number of stories, and after tales of misspent youth and unhappy adulthood we need this story to swallow the bitter pill of the rest. Sasha’s family allows us to hope; after all the mess we need to see that lives can get better, that something beautiful is ahead.
I did have one problem with this book: it isn’t anything wrong with Egan’s writing, nor is it unique to her book. Why are so many books full of characters that are selfish and egotistical, especially when they purport to be exploring ‘modern’ life? Does this really reflect the world we live in today? I understand writers want to explore all kinds of characters, but to that end why are they all so unrelentingly narcissistic? Many excellent novels are like this, Jonathon Franzen’s The Corrections being another example. It isn’t just books, it is television as well. Individually they can be fine, but the cumulative effect of this navel-gazing can be a little tiresome. Admittedly the egoism Egan’s characters exhibit works well with the black humour that makes this books enjoyable.
This is a very well constructed book, the structure and characters working together to tell a story that encompasses a wide breadth of human experience. It is not however flawless: some of her futuristic elements felt unoriginal and didn’t really add to the novel. Overall Egan brings humour to what are the painful truths of her character’s lives, revealing all their inadequacies. At times scathingly critical, and at others beautifully poignant, A Visit From The Goon Squad deserves much of the praise and attention it has received.