Jennifer Egan’s experimental and brilliant book, A Visit From the Goon Squad came out in 2010. I hesitate to call it a novel – although it was marketed as one – because it seems to lie half way between a novel and a collection of short stories. I would probably call it a collection of interconnected short stories – but I suppose if Egan had called it that, perhaps less people would have bought it. And I’m not going to complain about anything that made more people read this book, because it’s strangely and thoroughly brilliant.
In the first story of the book, we meet Sasha, PA to the CEO of a record company, with an obsessive addiction to stealing. In the second we meet Bennie, Sasha’s boss. In the third we meet Rhea, a friend of Bennie’s from his days of teenager punk rock. In the fourth we meet Charlie, daughter of Lou, who is the boyfriend of an old friend of Rhea’s. And so on and so on. Each story is linked in some way to a character we’ve met or heard of before, often in the previous story. Sasha and Bennie crop up more than the rest, and threads of families and connections weave through these stories in the most incredibly exciting way.
I love books like this. One of the quotes on the back of my edition describes it as a ‘mosaic of a novel’ (Booklist). In many ways it is like a collage, a patchwork quilt of stories, people and ideas. We move not only from one character to another, but in space and time, from the States to Africa to Naples, from the 1970s to today, and possibly into the future – although sometimes it’s hard to know quite where and when we are. I don’t say this as a criticism though; I didn’t really mind feeling a little displaced. Although the book is far from linear, you recognise characters from one story to the next, and so you know roughly where each story falls chronically in relation to the others.
And what is this patchwork quilt of a book about? Music, certainly, and also time, and pretty much everything else. Sasha and Bennie and a lot of the rest of the characters work in, or know people who work, the music industry. The motif of music and the changes in the industry run throughout. By seeing snapshots of these lives over the course of maybe fifty years we see the world and its inhabitants grow and age and change in a beautiful and fascinating way. Both Sasha and Bennie are glimpsed in their teenage years as well as in their fifties, and somewhere along the way.
The writing is thorough superb, assured, and different. Egan skilfully creates thirteen unique narrative voices, whether we’re in first or third or even second person. She is clearly a very talented writer and I’m excited to have a look at some of her other books. Her detailed observations of her characters’ personalities and relationships, of the way they interact with others and what motivates them – it’s so subtly yet fabulously done. Her characterisation is truly excellent. This is a book with a lot of characters, and a lot of characters that disappear and reappear. It’s a difficult feat that Egan’s attempting, and yet we do, I think, recognise every character when they reappear. Every figure is fully realised, and is curious enough for us that if they reappear we not only recognise them but greet them with delight.
A Visit from the Goon Squad is inventive in form not only as a whole but within each story. We range from conversational first person present in “Ask Me if I Care” – one of my favourite stories – to a third person narrator with an almost unsettling omniscient in “Safari”; from the inventive pseudo-journalistic style of “Forty-Minute Lunch”, to the unnerving second person of “Out of Body”. To sustain such a personal story at such a length in second person is truly admirable. I wasn’t convinced at first, but Egan really does, somehow, pull it off, and “Out of Body” is possibly my favourite story in the whole book. Rob is a brilliant character, and his friendship with Sasha and his mixed feelings towards Drew are so poignantly and beautifully captured.
However, I wasn’t absolutely convinced about the form of “Great Rock and Roll Pauses”. Saying that, I’m not entirely certain that it would have been better in a more conventional form. I’m undecided. I also have mixed feelings about “X’s and O’s”; although this is more to do with voice than form, I couldn’t quite match Scotty’s narrative voice here with his character as we’d seen him before. I know he’s supposed to have changed with age, but it still didn’t seem quite to fit him. To me these were the weakest stories in the book – but considering the very high quality of the rest, that’s not so say they weren’t good.
There are so many things I love about this book. It is not only inventive and experimental and so well-written, but it’s also a thoroughly engaging read. The stories are at times despairing and heart-breakingly sad, but there’s also this sort of hope in them. Sometimes you find out characters’ endings in stories that are not their own, and in this sense it’s a very satisfying book to read. We see an immense pleasure in the act of living, of life and time going on – and you get a sense of this pleasure when reading because it’s so enjoyable seeing characters turn up that you recognise from a few stories before. Life is fleeting, times goes on – and it’s all somehow terrifying and all somehow okay. I have a feeling A Visit from the Goon Squad will be making its way onto my list of favourite books.
As I’ve mentioned a couple of times before on this blog, I do write as well as read. I’m currently doing an MA in creative writing, and the project/book I’m working on over this year is a collection of interconnected short stories. Every time I’ve told someone on my course what I’m writing, they’ve recommended A Visit from the Goon Squad. And having finally read it, I know why. It’s nice to know that these sort-of-novels sort-of-short-story thingamajigs can actually work. So in that respect I got incredibly, incredibly excited about this book. And I’m quite thankful to Jennifer Egan, and utterly in awe.
Greatest strength: I hardly know whether to say the idea and premise, or just the strength of Egan’s writing. It’s so good.
Greatest weakness: As I said, there were a couple of stories whose form I wasn’t entirely sold on. However, the writing is I think strong enough to carry this, and it didn’t overall lessen my enjoyment of the book.
Let’s finish on a quote: ‘Time is a goon.’
Next week: shall be something a little more cinematic…