Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

"A Visit from the Goon Squad" by Jennifer Egan

My feelings about this one changed as I was reading it, from weary cynicism to excited wonder. I can't remember how I first heard about Goon Squad - I just knew that it was critically acclaimed. After reading the first two chapters, though, I was convinced that all that praise was just the usual empty hype. The writing seemed unremarkable to me, the tone that of the usual bored irony, the characters and themes tired, almost generic. A young kleptomaniac woman talking to her shrink; a divorced, middle-aged record producer with erectile problems and a difficult relationship with his son, who also has a shrink and is bothered by the cleanness and precision of digitally recorded music... None of this struck me as fresh or original or interesting, just a lukewarm rehash of David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers, and a dozen other contemporary, quasi po-mo American authors.

But, as it went on, the book veered off at unexpected tangents, suddenly reversing twenty years into the record producer's past - an episode narrated by a girl with a crush on him - and then into the even deeper past of the record producer's mentor... The chapters are actually short stories, and you could read them on their own, or in any order you like, but their arrangement here gives each and every one of them added depth and allusiveness. Which is, I think, why the book improves as it goes along: because what Egan is creating here is not the usual flat, linear tapestry of narrative, but a sort of multi-dimensional sculpture, with tunnels and lenses and mirrors, characters and events magnified and reflected and inverted by the episodes that come before and after.

Somehow the writing seems to improve as it goes along too, although that may have been my imagination. Maybe I just got used to Egan's style, or maybe I realized to what extent her prose mirrored the characters whose viewpoints we were sharing? In any case, the real star of the show is not the book's style, but its structure. Which might sound boring, but isn't. In fact, I found it really thrilling. The usual metaphor for chronologically mixed-up narratives - a jigsaw puzzle - is inadequate here. Goon Squad is more like the three-dimensional chess that they used to play in Star Trek (and The Big Bang Theory). I found myself wanting to chart the characters' relationships and the timeline on a graph, the way one of the characters (a twelve-year-old boy with slight autism) charts the length and position of pauses in rock songs.

I didn't, of course, because I'm not that anal, and life is too short. But maybe Kathy will do it, when she reads the book? Or, more likely, she'll google it and find a chart that someone else has made. I'm too lazy to even bother doing that. I loved this book, though, and will definitely look out for other fiction by Jennifer Egan.

1 comment:

Vintage Reading said...

It's a while since I read this so it is not fresh in my mind, but your review is very good. Yes, the writing did get better as the book went along. I wasn't keen on the powerpoint bit - although it was original - but as you say the book was something of a jigsaw puzzle. I must revisit it.