Sunday, May 08, 2011

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Some years ago, I had an idea for a novel, which I never wrote because, among other reasons, I'm not actually a novelist. But I wanted to tell a story in stories, where a minor character in the first story is the protagonist of the second, and so forth, until, finally, the last story looped back around to the first. (I also had vague plans for this all to be fantasy, but leave that aside for now.) It's not a new idea, of course -- so few worthwhile ideas are -- but it's a shape for a story that hasn't been overused, so it's an appealing, novel shape, both as a would-be writer and as a reader. (Of course, the reason that shape hasn't been used much is because it's fiendishly difficult to write a series of stories like that and actually have them hang together as a novel.)

Jennifer Egan won the Pulitzer Prize, just a few weeks ago, for A Visit From the Goon Squad, a novel that bears a very close resemblance to the one I thought I wanted to write. It doesn't charge outward quite as far as I thought I wanted to, staying mostly in the circle of people who know and/or work with record executive Bennie Salazar and his longtime personal assistant Sasha, starting with Sasha in the early '00s, moving on to Bennie only a few years later before ranging widely from the late '70s through much later years. Each of the viewpoint characters only get spotlighted once -- no matter how much the reader wants to get back inside that head, to find out what else happened, to continue that life -- but Egan effortlessly juggles her large cast, keeping each of them razor-distinct and tossing out offhand explanations of the rest of everyone's lives, before or after the events she narrates directly.
Goon Squad has been called a sweeping novel, which is an odd adjective for a book not even three hundred pages long. But that's absolutely an accurate description -- Goon Squad does sweep, across decades and around the world, and is much larger and more capacious than it appears. It's a difficult novel to write about, since each chapter is a separate, precise short story that continues the story of the previous chapter like -- well, not like pearls on a strand, since Egan jumps and obscures much more than that, but perhaps like individual trail markers on a long, winding walk around a particularly impressive piece of scenery. And all of those people, all of those protagonists, come along, dive into your ear and make a home in your brain, and then are gone almost as soon as they came, leaving you to wish they'd return. But they don't; Goon Squad is like life in that it leaves you wishing there was so much more of it, and in that people just leave, and you never see them again.

Some books have titles that just click -- you're reading along, enjoying the book, having forgotten entirely that you weren't sure what the book's name actually meant, when you stumble over a phrase and stop dead: that's what it means; that's what this book is about; that's what life is. A Visit from the Goon Squad is one of those flash-of-lightning books; I won't tell you what the title means, or how it's meaningful, but I will say: it does mean something; it means a hell of a lot. Goon Squad is probably not as "experimental" as it's been described -- for good or bad, whether you seek out or avoid books like that -- even though it does have a single chapter, late in the novel, written in the form of a PowerPoint presentation. And it does, as I saw Colleen Lindsay tweet when it won the Pulitzer, "count as a genre win" -- in a way I won't explain.

There are books that just feel like the real world -- big, complicated, connected in unexpected ways, thrilling and frightening and wonderful -- and A Visit from the Goon Squad is one of the best of those; I'm amazed that anyone could construct it so carefully and so perfectly, and I now need to read more Jennifer Egan.

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