Wit and Verve

October 13, 2011

Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad, New York: Anchor Books, 2010.

Reviewed by Jennifer Sinclair

This is a book worth taking notice of for a number of reasons. It is the book that won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in a year when Jonathan Franzen, probably the most celebrated living author on the planet right now, also had a book in contention. Franzen’s book, Freedom, moreover, is a book about an idea close to America’s heart and, at a stretch, is a parable about the current state of that idea in parts of middle-class America. So whichever way you look at it, Freedom was going to be a difficult book to knock off for a prize. Publication of Freedom, after all, earned Franzen the rare honour of a fiction writer being on the cover of Time magazine, so you would think he would believe he was a shoo-in for a major prize. But Jennifer Egan’s book, A Visit from the Goon Squad, pipped him at the post. The politics of awarding prizes is an interesting topic in itself – perhaps one judge thought Franzen was getting too much oxygen. Having read both novels, Egan’s book is probably the better of the two, partly because of its inventiveness with form.

 Generally, I am not a fan of writers who play around with form. Often it strikes me as little more than a distraction or a kind of ‘look at me – aren’t I clever’ gesture that quickly becomes wearing or irritating. Not so with Egan, the form of whose novel exactly mirrors the content and whose prose captures and conveys the nature and texture of contemporary lives. Variously described as a kaleidoscope or mosaic, the book’s structure seems to me more a hyper-linked way of telling a story. Characters who appear in passing in one section or story of the novel become the central focus of another chapter or story. It’s as if, as readers, we’ve clicked on a character and follow them down the path of their lives but, in an Alice in Wonderland kind of way, we don’t know for sure at the beginning of each chapter just where in time and space Egan has transported us and where our focus will be. It can be disorienting – again, a familiar experience? We don’t know for sure either whether we will meet these characters again, or necessarily what happens to them after that incident. Was it a ‘fateful moment’ or an insignificant event? Both kinds of experiences are jumbled up together, which also seems to reflect something of the helter-skelter quality of contemporary life.
And like our experience on the wonderful worldwide web, time is no longer linear or orderly – we can just as easily pull up an article or image from 1936 as we can read today’s headlines. Egan seems to be exploring what this might mean for ‘long form text’ – a rather ugly term for the novel I heard recently – and because of this Egan’s novel has a sparkling and surprising quality to it that makes it an uncommon and pleasurable experience. Egan’s novel does not progress in orderly fashion to a conclusion. There’s a kind of crescendo at the end but again the significance of it is not entirely clear. We’re not given satisfactory answers as to what it all means – our fate is to learn to live with inconclusiveness. The novel’s structure could also be described as fractured or fragmented – jumping from place to place and time to time – which also mirrors our experience of life on the web and perhaps our reading life on the web in particular. For all that, the web doesn’t feature heavily in the novel although there are some passing observations about technology, the way it has infiltrated our lives and may yet reshape them. I loved the mistyped phone text messages: if thr r children, thr must b a fUtr, rt? in the final chapter. Even text messages are plumbed for their social commentary and potential to confuse and distort human relations and communications. Egan is really smart and really clever.
And daring. Who else has had the wit and creative verve to write an entire chapter in PowerPoint? The chapter is composed by a younger character, of course, at sometime in the not-too-distant future, for whom long hand diary writing is a drag. The PowerPoint chapter is no list of key points however, a style used by the unimaginative, as if PowerPoint is no more than an illuminated page. Egan’s PowerPoint chapter seems to be based on standard layout templates; boxes within boxes; boxes connected by arrows; boxes that are arrows. The graphics indicate the movement of the text and add to what is being conveyed by the haiku-like bits of text. What is achieved is more than the sum of the individual parts. You have to admire Egan’s technical skill and her effort to make a visual chapter. Taken out of the book and pinned as separate pages on a gallery wall, this chapter could easily be, as it already is, a work of contemporary art. For all Franzen’s skill, he doesn’t do genre-crossing and one suspects he is too sniffy about technology to even try. If Egan’s inventiveness with form sounds twee and over-wrought, it’s not. In fact it’s only after the novel is done that you marvel at how cleverly it has been put together.
I am not a fan of aging rock musicians either, which I have seen described as the subject of the book. This was almost enough to put me off reading the novel altogether. But A Visit from the Goon Squad is more about some characters who happen to work in the music industry and the rises and falls in fame and fortune and, above all else, the ravages and tricks of time. The music industry is a kind of metaphor for success and failure and survival; for striving and disappointment, for affluence and poverty.
Because of the novel’s structure you don’t get the kind of psychological depth and insight into the characters that you might expect from a novel, and that I generally look for and enjoy. But what you get instead are momentary insights into the predicaments of the characters’ lives that are nonetheless moving and absorbing. It’s a great book.
Five stars from me.

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