Saturday, October 21, 2017

Jennifer Egan's A Visit From The Goon Squad

A Visit From The Goon Squad is a novel in thirteen chapters, or thirteen stories about an interlocking group of characters. Famously one of the stories is in the form of a PowerPoint presentation. It won the Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle Award for the year it came out, 2011. So, you know, it's a celebrated book, and anything I might add is just a cherry on top. But for what it's worth, I, too, thought it was great.

The novel centers around Sasha and Bennie and their friends, family, co-workers, and acquaintances. Each of the thirteen chapters focuses on a different character; Sasha and then Bennie get the first two, which are set in the present. Bennie Salazar operates a music production company. He used to own it, but sold it to one of the biggies, and was more successful in the past. In the present, Sasha is unattached and has a problem with kleptomania. She's also the assistant to Bennie as record producer. That's the sum total of the connection between the two of them, and unlike a different sort of novel, that's the way it stays.

The novel is a little difficult--not To The Lighthouse or Finnegans Wake difficult--but still it requires paying attention and doubling back. The difficulty arises because each of those chapters focuses on a different person; that person's connection with one of the two main characters may be more or less tenuous; the time frame jumps with each chapter from the 80s to maybe the 2020s. The Wikipedia article is pretty good at tying it together and I see no need to reproduce it, though the article does seem to find the novel darker than I did.

That structure, though, is also the novel's great source of strength. Seeing our characters in action over four decades and through the eyes of others means they gain a depth that a more tightly focussed novel wouldn't reveal.

It allows passages like this, which comes from a chapter focussing on Sasha's Uncle Ted, who goes to Naples to find Sasha, since her family suspects (correctly) she's living a life there of dissipation and crime and drugs:

On another day more than twenty years after this one, after Sasha had gone to college and settled in New York; after she'd reconnected on Facebook with her college boyfriend and married late (when Beth had nearly given up hope) and had two children, one of whom was slightly autistic; when she was like anyone, with a life that worried and electrified and overwhelmed her, Ted, long divorced--a grandfather--would visit Sasha at home in the  California desert. He would step through a living room strewn with with the flotsam of her young kids and watch the western sun blaze through a sliding glass door. And then for an instant he would remember Naples.
And that summary, almost bald, is verified by other chapters, but only mostly, because it's more complicated than that. Uncle Ted doesn't quite see everything. And that's the way life is: it works out, or doesn't, and others only partly perceive us, our triumphs, our failures, even our simple changes in time.

Anyway, very good, I thought.

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