Friday, August 20, 2010

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

While short stories are one of the oldest fictional genres (if not the oldest), "linked" short stories are among the newest. And it's a bit of a strange genre at that--it possesses neither the depth and development of the novel nor the staccato burst of the short story.

It depends instead, somewhat paradoxically, on omission and inclusion. Characters re-appear at different stages in their lives and in different roles, but the spaces between these appearances are left blank. Often it's difficult to find the strain that connects linked short stories beyond similar people or locations. One might argue that linked short stories best represent our lives as we live them; our lives tend not to have the grand narrative arcs of novels or the disparate, concentrated moments of meaning and action of short stories. It is a genre that balances connection and ambiguity.

As such, it is a genre that can be both beguiling and frustrating by turn. The relationships between the linked stories are often as overt as they are elusive. What does it mean exactly if the main character in one story appears as a bystander in a later story? How are we to connect the threads we see, even as the author creates spaces and questions between them?

Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad embodies much that is interesting and confounding about linked short stories. Like many such collections, the central figures of A Visit from the Goon Squad are not people, but ideas--in this case time, memory, maturation, music and technology.

Egan shows us the effect of these forces on a handful of recurring characters, even as she keeps them at arm's length. For example, the collection starts with a blind date between Sasha and Alex, a young couple living in New York City in what appears to be the present day. Sasha, an assistant to record-executive Bennie Salazar, is a kleptomaniac who is probably the most fully formed character in the work; we see her as an adolescent, as a lost woman-child in Europe, and finally as a reasonably well-adjusted mother of two in a not-too-distant future America. And yet, we don't get to know her. We watch her and follow her, track her and recognize her, but Egan keeps her at a distance. The effect is rather more cinematic than fictional; like a movie character, Sasha's interiority is largely inaccessible, even as we have her square in our sights.

This is one consequence of linked stories; we are not given much insight into cause and effect. Sasha is a kleptomanic at the start and appears not be in the end. What was the source of her compulsion? How did it resolve itself? These questions are left open, even as we know somewhere there are answers.
These narrative particularities aside, A Visit from the Good Squad does contain two especially striking stories, both of which could stand on their own in a more traditional story collection. The most formally innovative "story" in the collection is actually a PowerPoint presentation called "Rock and Roll Pauses by Alison Blake." The presentation is a notebook-cum-diary of a young girl in PowerPoint form. The graphs, flowcharts, tables, and bullet-lists represent Alison's attempt to figure her family out, from her Dad's startling disquient to her probably-autistic brother's obsession with pauses in rock music.

Alison'r project, and that of her brother, share some of the larger questions of the collection: How do you understand people who don't understand themselves? How do you deal with incomplete or ambiguous information? How do you construct the story of your life out of the thing strands of your experience?
Egan's final story, "Pure Language," takes these same questions and turns them upside down. In it, 30-something husband and father Alex (who appears on the blind date in the first story) participates in an elaborate technology-driven promotion for an outdoor concert in lower Manhattan. Essentially, the sceme is viral-promotion masquerading as "authentic" word of mouth: using social networking, well-placed text messages to influential friends, and subliminal messages, Alex and the rest of the concert promoters "manufacture" desire among parents and children to go see a show by a fading rock musician. Or rather, they manufacture the perception that the concert will fill a latent desire for connection, collectivity, and transcendence in this particular population.

These twin stories suggest that Egan sees a choice before us. Either we learn to deal with the incompleteness and ambiguity of our lives or we we look for some kind of resolution, even if that means looking to artificial, packaged solutions to what ails us.


  1. I've noticed a trend toward selling (disguising?) linked short stories as novels. For some reason short story collections are a tough sell--and some writers' talents are most suited to the form of the story. I wonder why readers don't turn to short stories more readily, since our attention-deficit society seems to have shortened the average attention span.

  2. Good review. I just finished and reviewed this book myself. While I founds parts engaging and even poignant, the style puts me off. Not sure that I saw the same intent on Egan's part that you did. I'm afraid that I ascribed the incompleteness and ambiguity to style, not purpose. I'm hoping that the "linked stories" is a format fad that passes quickly.

  3. I don't want an artificial, packaged solution! LOL

    Seriously, I am pretty fond of linked short stories if they are done well. To me, Tim Winton (of Australia) does this very well. The Turning, Scission, and Minimum of Two are excellent examples of this genre. Thing is, I can get one impression of a character on my own, but reading a linked short story allows me to see another character relate to the first and reveals more than I perceived on my own. And it shows consequences beyond what may be implied with only one character.

    Wow, that was way too wordy. What I mean, I guess, is that I like the depth that can be found in some books in this style. I haven't read Egan's book-it didn't appeal to me at all.

    I just read The Imperfectionists, which is similar to this style but still novel-like. It works great, like an ensemble cast in a show.

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  5. I've read all three of Egan's previous novels and am looking forward to this one. I give her a lot of credit for writing such varied books.

    I have a strong preference for novels over short stories... but seem to have a high tolerance for linked short stories. If they're done well. I don't know what that means but, like Amy, I enjoy seeing an ensemble cast that presents varying points of view.

    A note on the history of the genre: Russians have been writing books of linked stories since the first half of the 19th century. Lermontov's Hero of Our Time is a novel-in-stories, and Pushkin's Belkin Tales are also (more loosely) connected. Sergei Dovlatov wrote some wonderful novels-in-stories: I particularly liked his Compromise, about Soviet-era Estonia. (I've written about all three of these books; links are on the sidebar of my Russian blog.)

  6. Thanks, Ape - you've managed, in your first two paragraphs, to give voice to an idea that I've been unable to fully form for years. Those two grafs explain to me exactly why I'm not a fan of the linked short stories. Regarding the book, though, it sounds just crazy enough to be interesting.

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