Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

"A Visit from the Goon Squad" by Jennifer Egan (Constable and Robinson, 2011)

In the other reviews (there's no shortage of them) you'll find summaries of the chapters. As a reviewer pointed out, it's hard to say anything new about a book that's already received so much attention. Here are few thematic signposts from those reviews

  • Egan deftly manages to weave strands of time and music together, using bands to evoke time periods we’re all familiar with. Egan particularly stresses the pauses within the musical scores. The pauses represent life’s pauses - our stops and our starts - what she terms our 'not yets'. - Elissa Elliott
  • [Goon] is one character's name for time: "Time's a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?" Everyone in the book is pushed around by time, circumstance and, occasionally, the ones they love - Sarah Churchwell
  • "A Visit From The Goon Squad" is a novel about time, and music, and how the two of them work to make connections across people's lives. ... it is divided into two "sides" (A and B) and it's instructive to think of the chapters as tracks on an album - Jonathan Gibbs

Tracks of an album? Maybe. Several work as self-contained stories (I'd heard "Safari" presented as such before, and liked it). Certainly time's a theme: the stories are often interrupted by memories or flashbacks, and there are some flash-forwards. Since the stories involve the same bunch of people, and the stories (spread over 40 years into the 2020s) aren't presented chronologically, one story can foretell or introduce another. The author admits to being influenced by Proust and The Sopranos. Others see some Pulp Fiction in there too.

In the first chapter, "Found Objects" (a good story), the initial narrative turns out to be a recollection. The "present" is where Sasha is with Coz her therapist. The style of the stories rewards readers looking for meanings in the details. Why "Coz"? Maybe because "Coz = Because", a keyword for therapists. The initial narrative is revisited, and other memories are interjected. Attention flicks between narrative frames, often triggered by an emotion the 2 frames share. Sasha remembers stealing an old piece of paper from a one-night-stand's wallet. Written on it was "I believe in you". While she's thinking about whether she should have returned it, we're jolted back to the present with "And did you? Put it back?" Coz asked. We meet the victim again in the final chapter. The story makes the point that the therapist and patient together construct a narrative, play the game expected of their roles. "Therapist/patient = Author/reader?"

The writing can be fast and dense. Take this paragraph for example (p.87)

Kids I remember from high school are making movies, making computers. Making movies on computers. A revolution, I keep hearing people say. I'm trying to learn Spanish. At night, my mother tests me with flash cards.

or this (p.100)

As I looked up at him, I experienced several realizations, all in a sort of cascade: (1) Bennie and I weren't friends anymore, and we never would be; (2) He was looking to get rid of me as quickly as possible with the least amount of hassle; (3) I already knew that would happen. I'd known it before I arrived; (4) It was the reason I had come to see him

Several of the characters have obsessions - stealing, gold flakes, etc. In "X's and O's" Scotty has trouble seeing spectra: things are either White/Black or all grey. He meets someone he's not seen for years, says 'I came for this reason: I want to know what happened between A and B'. If he's looking for cause and effect I think he might be disappointed: things happen in the pauses, fall into the cracks. One thing I like about Egan is that she's more digital than analogue - no impressionistic mood music. Details form the foundation of her work.

Sections 7 and 13 have a function in the novel but in themselves are the least strong. One section's in the 2nd person, another's a Powerpoint-like presentation. Section 9 has long footnotes and a style that reminds people of David Foster Wallace. I didn't find the book strikingly original (even the Powerpoint chapter has forbears), though I agree it's bold and successful, introducing some non-mainstream ideas to a wider audience. The book could maybe do with an index. I wonder if the chapters could have been chronologically ordered. It would have helped a few readers. There's perhaps enough to-ing and fro-ing in the chapters as they are - in "Safari" for example we're told what will become of the main characters in the decades to come.

The book ends with "But it was another girl, young and new to the city, fiddling with her keys". With so much music in the book, the use of "fiddling" and "keys" comes as no surprize.

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