Thursday, February 21, 2013

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan: A review

Is A Visit from the Goon Squad really a novel or is it a collection of linked stories? It is extremely hard to classify or to summarize this convoluted exercise in story-telling. In the end though, I think the category hardly matters. Whatever you call it, it's a great read.

These are stories about the passage of time and how our lives never seem to work out the way we thought they would. "Goon," in Jennifer Egan's lexicon, means time. We all receive visits from the "Goon Squad" every day, every year, even if we are oblivious to those visits.

One of the many quirky things about this book is its portrayal of time. The action takes place over a period of forty years or so, but the narrative jumps forward and backward with ease and without warning. When you start reading a chapter, it isn't always clear at first just what time period you are in, but just keep reading. Eventually you'll get it.

A second quirkiness is the long list of protagonists who get to narrate the story from their point of view. The chapters (stories?) jump from one protagonist to another, but again, keep reading. After a while you'll find that this loose skein of narratives actually holds together. The pattern becomes clear. Music is woven through all the stories as a unifying theme and one might say that they exhibit perfect pitch.

Two characters who appear in the first chapter and reappear in the points of view of other protagonists throughout the book are music executive Bennie Salazar and his assistant Sasha. We soon learn that these characters, as indeed all of the book's characters, have their dark side, but one feels that Egan has an affection for her characters and she views their...um...eccentricities not unsympathetically and the reader tends to accept her view of them.

I've seen some reviews of this book which compare it to a Dickensian tale and I can see that. The multiplicity of characters, the complexity of their relationships, and their passage through time, as well as their changes through time, could well remind one of Dickens. Also Proust, for these characters are haunted by remembrance of things past.

Of course, Proust or Dickens never wrote a chapter in PowerPoint presentation format, but then maybe they would have if PowerPoint had been around in their day. That chapter, written in a somewhat dystopian future time by Sasha's teenage daughter, was, for me, one of the most moving in the book. I must admit I approached it warily, but after a few pages, it just seemed natural, as if that particular story could not have been told any other way.

Kids and their points of view are woven in the pattern throughout the book. These kids are invariably sharp observers and just as sharp judges of their parents and other adults. They are extremely savvy about the digital age in a way that their parents never can be. 

This is particularly true of the kids that appear in the dystopian future that is the setting of the latter chapters. Evans refers to the end of fifteen years of war that produced a baby boom and now these gadget-loving kids are everywhere and seem to be propelling the culture forward in an altogether new direction. 

The individual stories told here are sometimes sad, even tragic, but also often darkly funny. Egan writes with a light touch, just a bit of satire seeping from around the edges. Overall, the book has a somewhat bittersweet quality to it as you might expect of a book about the passage of time and the ravages it inflicts on our lives and on our images of ourselves. 

It is not the easiest book to read, just because of its complicated structure, but it is well worth the effort. I'm glad I stuck with it!

4 comments:

  1. Sounds like this book would definitely be good excercise for the brain! Stopping over from Books You Loved!

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    1. Thanks for coming by, Peggy. As you can gather from my review, I definitely found it to be a worthwhile read.

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  2. I have been interested in reading this book since it was first released but have never made it around to it. It sounds like a slow read due to the complicated structure. Glad that you enjoyed it in the end. Thanks for sharing your review!
    Rebecca @ The Key to the Gate

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    1. Yes, Rebecca, I have to admit that it does make you work a bit, but, for me at least, it was definitely worth it.

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