Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A Visit from the Goon Squad

By Jennifer Egan

New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2010

Week 39 Fiction

You know it is an amazing week when you can be blown away by two books in one week. First by Jesus Freak by Sara Miles and now by A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.

I latched onto Goon Squad from the reviews synthesized in BookMarks magazine, which gave it 4 stars. Because the format is so different from any of my last several books (it is not linear in any way), I had a terrible time at the beginning. Then I realized that the scattered nature of the book is not scattered at all. Each chapter is a story about the interlocking characters of the book, and each story may have been told in the past, the present, or the future. Then, I went back and made an outline of the book and wrote down the narrator and the characters included in each story and the time frame of the story. Suddenly, the whole thing made sense and became utterly fascinating.

What is the book about? Well, ostensibly the book is about the music business, where it was in the 1970s, how it became digitalized and lost its soul, and then how in some distant future, it finds itself again. The book is even divided up into two sections A and B, like the two sides of a vinyl record.

All the stories revolve in some way or another around Sasha and Bennie. In the first story, Sasha at age 30-something is Bennie’s assistant. Bennie is a music producer. The stories circle back into their youth and how they happened to arrive where they did; future chapters relate the stories of others on the periphery of their lives, and on into the future giving us an intimation of where they all end up. Bennie and Sasha are not particularly appealing characters, nor are any of the other characters whose paths intersect with theirs. The messes they create are neither pleasant messes nor are the resolutions clean cut.

So what is the attraction of this book that made it such a brilliant piece of writing? First of all, the structure keeps you on your toes all through the book. Who is this chapter going to be about? What happened to ____ (fill in the blank)? How is this situation going to fit into the bigger picture? Chapter 12 is a PowerPoint presentation created by Sasha’s pre-teen daughter…ever seen one of those in a novel?

Secondly, there is the history of rock music that runs throughout the book. One reviewer suggested that a CD should be included in the book. Interestingly enough, the music is on an 8-track on Egan’s website. One could play each piece of music as it is encountered in the book. Another reviewer suggested that each chapter title could be the name of a track on the record, A Visit from the Goon Squad, i.e. “Ask Me if I Care,” and “Out of Body.”

Most importantly, the theme of the book is time, fate and destiny. Egan explores the question, “How did we get from where we were to where we are now?” As an example, Scotty is a down-and-out musician who seeks out Bennie the music producer. They had known each other as kids. He asks, “I came for this reason: I want to know what happened between A and B. A is where we were both in the band chasing the same girl. B is now.” That encounter is in chapter 6. In chapter 13, the last chapter in the book, Scotty finds his answer.

I remember the cosmic moment at about age 8 when I realized with stunning clarity that I was not the center of the universe and that the other people whose lives intersected mine were busily involved in creating their own realities. Each of the characters in A Visit from the Goon Squad is busily creating reality--sometimes chasing the same girl, sometimes totally losing touch, and finally, finding each other again.

Life is not a circle that begins and ends at the same point; it is a zigzag pattern that can veer off in a totally different direction at any moment. Yet, Egan suggests that there is circularity to even the most zigzagging life and that all our patterns are interwoven into the same great circle of experience that encompasses us all.

Here is a good review in San Francisco

Here is a passage from a wonderful review from The Book Lady’s Blog:
"The stories in this novel are connected, but they are not pieces of puzzle, and if you read them looking for a way to construct a single whole picture, you’ll just be missing the point. And you’ll be horribly confused. By experimenting with format, narrative structure, narrative voice, point-of-view, time, and, well, another handful or two of writing techniques, Egan succeeds in not only telling several people’s stories but forcing readers to think about how we take in moments as they occur and how we reshape them when we talk about them later. She pushes the boundaries of contemporary fiction and gives us an entirely fresh (and refreshing) reading experience, and I’m just going to stop talking about it now and tell you that if you’re the kind of reader who doesn’t need a straight narrative and a clean ending, you don’t want to miss A Visit from the Goon Squad."

Here is an interview with Jennifer Egan in the Economist:

Jennifer Egan’s website: which is very cool by the way:
Be sure to look at Alison’s power point and listen to the soundtrack of the book.

1 comment:

Rebecca @ The Book Lady's Blog said...

Thanks so much for this insightful review and for quoting from mine! I'm almost embarrassed to admit that this is the first time I realized that the A and B thing could be sides of an album--I was so focused on the book being about how we get from point A to point B that it never occurred to me! I so love that this is a book where every discussion teaches me something new.