2011 Pulitzer Prize Winner for Fiction
in a nutshell Experimental choral novel that plays with time to present an array of lost and found souls, be they journalists, ex drug addicts, publicists, art professors, college students, PAs, children or rich businessmen. You will accompany them along their search of a way out, or forward, as they lose and find parts of themselves in the process.
why? A sweeping, entertaining and compassionate portrait of American society.
flavour extract Sasha leaned against the tub beside him and took a tiny sip of grappa. It tasted like Xanax. She was trying to remember Alex's age on his profile. Twenty-eight, she thought, but he seemed younger than that, maybe a lot younger. She saw her apartment as he must see it - a bit of local color that would fade almost instantly into the tumble of adventures that everyone has on first coming to New York. It jarred Sasha to think of herself as a glint in the hazy memories that Alex would struggle to organize a year or two from now: Where was that place with the bathtub? Who was that girl?
flavour extract II Here you can find a music playlist inspired by the novel's many song references
(courtesy of dr. Caleb Sivyer)
Jennifer Egan had been on my reading list for a while, but I finally picked up this novel after realising each chapter follows a different character, creating a series of individual but interconnected stories. This narrative structure appealed to me because lately I have found it difficult to read with the same momentum I once had. The environment distracts me more and, especially at home, I sometimes find it impossible to let myself be fully immersed in the wordy worlds of fiction. Wandering off, I do wonder if we are too harsh on teenager readers whose lives are steeped in virtuality and its endless flow. It must take a lot of concentration and strength of mind to be able to focus solely on a book for any given period of time. Or perhaps they have developed the gift for true multitasking, keeping their absorption into whatever they are reading and the latest Insta story of their friends and idols, while maybe sneaking in a reading selfie too. Going back to Egan's novel, I finally picked it up in the high hope that it would gift me with its own reading pace, and so it did. This is one of the main (romantic) reasons why I love buying a book even if I know I won't read it for some time, because to me each unread book is a mysterious treasure box that might regale me with what I need exactly when I need it most and least hope to find it (I guess at heart I am one of those amateur fiction enthusiasts for whom I affect distaste). What I am trying to say, very confusedly, is that A Visit from the Goon Squad gave me great reading pleasure thanks to its structure, because each chapter can be read in one sitting, like a short story, yet its insularity is only apparent because characters recur, so you are always on the lookout for ways to piece the jigsaw puzzle together. This proves that great fiction can be entertaining too. The novel's greatest achievement is indeed that of creating, piece by piece, a large jigsaw fresco of American society, in particular of music showbiz and all who revolve around it, from the '70s till a not-so-distant future.
What I loved most about this work is the flair the author has for portraiture. Each character, no matter how short their dedicated chapter, is presented in such a way that they are all but flat, because they are caught at a defining moment in their lives - at a critical juncture, a moment of catharsis, or entrapped in yet another day of their ordinary life. Thus the reader gets an in-depth glimpse of who they are - what is even better, the choral structure means that at some point, sooner or later, you will get to meet that character once again, younger or older, dead or alive. This novel is indeed all about time and the marks of ravaging, as well as atoning, that it stamps on people. As some translations give away, the 'goon squad' of the title is none other than time.* One of the characters explains that time is a goon (a thud) because it wrecks body and soul. And yet the novel is never bleak. The overall feeling is one of compassion: time may be a pillager out to destroy your dreams, yet it is also the only instrument for redemption to be found and integrity to be restored, if only briefly, if only at the expense of others' suffering.
Going back to the experimental nature of the novel, in several interviews Jennifer Egan has openly acknowledged her desire to specifically experiment with temporality. I think she does so in a very successful way. Characters exist in different times, at different ages. Re-reading the novel, for example, I discovered a little cameo in chapter 4 that gives away details of the adult life of a character who will only appear as a child 100-odd pages later, and as a young woman of unsure destiny in the very last chapter. Not only is Egan's handling of narrative time playful and engrossing but, most importantly, it creates a multi-faceted view of its characters not unlike that of a cubist painting, where you accrue a sense of a face's tridimensionality through the different angles that are depict. Similarly, in this work the individuality of each character is asserted through the brushing gaze of others, which reveals another facet, and another - Sasha, the 35-year-old kleptomaniac protagonist of the first chapter, later appears as her boss's sexual fantasy as well as loyal and efficient employee, as a quiet but strong-willed college student in her best friend's narrative, as a runaway tramp rescued by her uncle in Naples, as a loving mother and wife to her young and very critical daughter, and finally as a floating name haunting a casual sex partner in the very last chapter.
Finally, the effectiveness of this composite character sketching is heightened by the use of diverse narrative styles. Each chapter voices one character's experience through a variety of forms - ranging from first and third person to the unusual second-person narrative, from omniscient narrator to magazine article, via a PowerPoint diary. It had been a long time since I had last read a novel that gave me so much pleasure for so many different reasons. I found it a very humane novel, well thought out and able to satisfy my desire both for a good read and for good writing. I would recommend it to anyone! If you get round to reading it please comment below with your own thoughts about it!
*The Italian and Spanish translations sacrifice the image of visitation in favour of the more concise phrase 'time is a goon' (it.: Il tempo è un bastardo, esp.: El tiempo es un canalla), whilst the French translation uses the past tense to convey the idea of time passing and wrecking dreams in its wake (Qu'avons-nous fait de nos rêves?, literally 'What have we done with our dreams?'). My favourite is possibly the Spanish one ('bastardo' in Italian is a mild swear word, which 'goon' is not), but none really convey the graphic image of time coming to pay you a visit as a squad, which immediately suggests the idea of a firing squad, hence violence.