Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A Visit From The Goon Squad

When I finally get around to writing my own Great American Novel, I want it to be just like Jennifer Egan's newest, A Visit from the Goon Squad. It reads exactly the way I've always wanted my bedside table books to, with each chapter easily standing alone as its own short story (no need to re-read the last few pages from the night before to "catch up") and yet each chapter is also inherently necessary to the narrative as a whole. A brilliant writing technique eloquently executed.

For those who dislike a non-linear storyline (like in the movie Momento) you may have difficulty at first when one chapter told from the perspective of a mid-aged man in New York proceeds a story where he is now relegated to a bit player in the memory of a thirteen year old girl in California, a story in which he too is only thirteen. Egan does a great job easing the reader through each transition. While not a single character takes center stage more than once in the book, I assure you, this is a cohesive novel, not a compilation of vaguely connected anecdotes.

The best example of the way the stories weave together comes from the chapter called Safari. Page 61: "The warrior smiles at Charlie. He's nineteen...and has lived away from his village since he was ten. But he's sung for enough American tourists to recognize that in her world, Charlie is a child. Thirty-five years from now, in 2008, this warrior will be caught in the tribal violence between the Kikuyu and the Luo and will die in a fire. He'll have had four wives and sixty-three grandchildren by then, one of whom, a boy named Joe, will inherit his lalema: the iron hunting dagger in a leather scabbard now hanging at this side. Joe will go to college at Columbia and study engineering... He'll marry an American named Lulu and remain in New York, where he'll invent a scanning device that becomes standard issue for crowd security. He and Lulu will buy a loft in Tribeca, where his grandfather's hunting dagger will be displayed inside a cube of Plexiglas, directly under a skylight."

There are also some really clever plot points that I couldn't help but marvel at. There is a time in which we find out about the poor decision that cost a successful PR mogul her position...AND left an incredible mark on her industry and the stories of subsequent characters. Page 142: "...La Doll had had a vision; broad, translucent trays of oil and water suspended beneath small brightly colored spotlights whose heat would make the opposing liquids twist and bubble and swirl...They marveled at the lit trays; La Doll saw them do it from a small booth she'd had constructed high up and to one side so she could view the panorama of her achievement. From there, she was the first to notice...that something was awry with the translucent trays that held the water and oil; they were sagging a little -- were they? They were slumping like sacks from their chains and melting, in other words. And then they began to collapse, flop and drape and fall away, sending scalding oil onto the heads of every glamorous person in the country and some other countries, too. They were burned, scarred, maimed in the sense that tear-shaped droplets of scar tissue on the forehead of a movie star or small bald patches on the head of an art dealer or model or generally fabulous person constitute maiming."

So strange! So specific! So intriguing!

Underneath the initial plot line is also a commentary on our changing relationship with time and nostalgia in an era who's tools (Twitter, Facebook) only harness the now. The concept was better explained here recently when Egan was a guest on NPR's On Point.

What hardly qualifies as the only complaint I really have about Goon Squad, is that while it appeals to my short attention span, after getting introduced to the character, time, and place and being lead along the plot line rapidly to the short story's conclusion, there is hardly time for the text to really move me - to capture my heart - which is the one thing you know that I think takes literature from good to truly great.

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