Wednesday, January 13, 2016

A Visit from the Goon Squad

         Over the past few years, I’ve scoured through “best books to read before you die” lists with the frantic hope that I wouldn’t croak before reading all the literature and feeling all the feels. Maybe purgatory is for people who haven’t finished their current book. I note the books that reappear in multiple lists, thinking that I really have to read that one before dying because The New York Times AND NPR gods say so. One such title is Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad*. Goon is a funny word that reminds me of my days in Australia when the only thing we could afford to drink was boxed wine with questionable contents, affectionately called “goon”.

         I quickly learned that “goon” in this case is not a cheap, disgusting libation, but rather a reference to the inevitable passage of time. Sigh. Time really is a goon, insidiously attacking us, mercilessly eliminating our ability to ward off hangovers, and forcing us to do adulting even when we’re woefully unprepared. Egan’s novel emphasizes time as a means to illuminate connections; characters interact at one point in time and then are inextricably linked thereafter. Instead of clarifying the power of connection through one point of view, the narrative bounces from one person to another every chapter. For example, one chapter shows Sasha, a kleptomaniac with a dark, ruthless past. A later chapter is about Bennie Salazar, a forlorn music producer whom Sasha used to assist. An even later chapter follows Alex, a one-time victim of Sasha’s penchant for stealing, who connects with Bennie years later for a shady job. The end result is a novel that actually feels more like a succession of short stories.

This structure is sometimes creatively satisfying, sometimes bothersome. Since each character has a different voice, we see Egan’s skill at portraying such a vast spectrum of personhood. While she emphasizes their interwoven connections in space and time, she also differentiates them with distinct personalities. My favorite chapter was that of Sasha’s daughter, who explained her feelings toward the family dynamic—specifically concerning her autistic brother—solely via PowerPoint presentation. Egan certainly wins creative points there. Yet, I was also annoyed by the novel’s ADHD arrangement. Just when I would get invested in a character’s life, Egan incidentally sapped my interest by moving on to someone else-- an unfortunate byproduct of her innovative composition.

So, the novel covers a range of characters, but what do they have in common--aside from a physical interaction at one point in time? They’re all going through some psychological agony. Some suffer from mental illness, some demonstrate drug dependency, some just can’t keep it in their pants, etc. As each person is affected by the passage of time, we see how time heals in some instances and time scars in others. Even when characters are depicted struggling in their youth, there is hopefulness inherent to their age. For instance, Stephanie, Bennie’s ex-wife reflects, “None of it was serious. They were young and lucky and strong—what did they have to worry about? If they didn’t like the result, they could go back and start again” (Egan, 139). When Egan circles back to old characters later on, we see whether or not “the goon won” or if the characters were truly able to go back and start again (Egan, 349).

Overall, I was pretty entertained throughout the novel, up until it fizzled in the last chapter. In the end, Egan provides a dystopian future where genuine connection is traded for efficiency and the only real way to interact with someone is through a technological medium. It reads as though she’s trying to be original, but that’s pretty much the track the world is on currently, so she lost creative points there. I found that the final chapter didn’t add any value. If anything, it detracted from the novel by disrupting an otherwise inventive storyline with a bland reiteration of what we already know to be true about connection in this age. In this light, I’m pretty shocked that A Visit from the Goon Squad won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2011. Pondering time’s toll on humans is obviously relevant to any reader and I do think that most people would enjoy the first 90% of the novel. But I certainly wouldn’t absolutely insist that you read this before you die, nor would I sentence you to purgatory if you didn’t finish it. Thus, the novel levels out at a cool 3 out of 5 camel humps.

*Egan, Jennifer. A Visit from the Goon Squad. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010. Print.

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