Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Today in Paperback: A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

I wrote about Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad last summer, and now that it's out in paperback, I thought I would re-run it as further impetus for you to read it (also this blog was only a couple of months old, so this is probably new to most of you). Seriously--if you read this blog, you should read this book.

Here was my review....

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 fix what ails us.

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  1. What a great review! I also loved this book and wrote a review (not nearly as articulate as yours) on my blog. http://bookdiary2010.blogspot.com/2011/01/visit-from-goon-squad.html

    Thanks for the post, Kathy

  2. This sounds like a really interesting collection of short stories. I've never really read a set of linked short stories before, I'm only really getting into reading short stories. This sounds fascinating especially the two stories you highlighted.

  3. I did not get this one at all - I recognise it as a novel take on the short story collection/novel (it really sits on the fence between those two), but my overall experience was "frustrating". My main objection was that I couldn't find a character to latch on to as a focus (which is hardly surprising, I think that was her intention), but also that the book felt too academic, like she was trying to create something new and thought-provoking etc but it was soulless.
    On the other hand, it has clearly appealed to you and thus achieved its objective?