Friday, August 12, 2011

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan: A Perfect Digital Age Novel


Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit from the Good Squad is the perfect book for the digital age. Just imagine trying to assemble someone’s life from fragments, analog and digital: the recollection of an uncle here, a former lover’s story there, a music journalist’s article, a daughter’s PowerPoint presentation years later. It’s a detective story for the 21st century.

Yes, we’re talking a big question novel. Questions like “Is it possible to really know anyone?” and “What face do we present to the world and to others?” We have to ask these questions because Sasha, the main character (or is the main character Bennie, her record label owning boss), is revealed to us from multiple perspectives in non-linear time. Part of the genius here is that some chapters don’t mention Sasha at all, but by revealing details about characters who were/are/will (keeping track of the time is one of the challenges) interact with her, it informs us about their perspective, which we then have to keep in mind when they do mention Sasha.

Egan tells the story through a dizzying array of characters and styles. Literally every chapter is from a different character’s perspective and, unlike As I Lay Dying for example, the characters get only one chapter. Some are in first person, some in third and one is even in second. One is a magazine article and another is a PowerPoint presentation. Sasha is a troubled young woman in some stories, a quirky and occasionally snobby assistant in others, a suburban housewife at the end.

It could be gimmicky – but it’s not, due to the extraordinary precision and power of the writing, and because it has the basic ingredient of any good story: you want to know what’s going to happen (maybe that should be “What did happen and what is happening” – questions of tense get a bit mixed up in a novel of this non-linear breadth). The writing serves the story and the characters. In fact, unusual though the approach may be, I can’t imagine this story being told any other way.

Music flows through the book (which may be part of the reason why I like it so much). There’s a nascent punk band whose members end up in all sorts of different places, one named Scotty emerging years later to slap a fish on the desk of Bennie, the record label owner who played in the band. The novel itself is  bit like switching from station to station, catching bits of one song before changing to another.

This book does take patience, especially at first: tracking what’s happening can be challenging. I’d find myself a bit lost at the start of each chapter until I figured out the perspective. This faded with time, and it helps that I read it in a great hurry because, unlike most post-modernist and/or experimental works (for which I have little patience as I’m just not smart enough to get it and don’t want to work that hard), this is gripping stuff. I read it in three evenings, almost unable to put it down. That’s the true test of a great story.

Which brings us to the question of what this really is: a collection of linked short stories? A novel told from multiple perspective? Something entirely different? I don’t know, and I’m not sure it even matters. Like the characters in the novel and like real life, the form of the book is squishy, fluid and open to interpretation. What really matters is that it’s a terrific read, inventive and perfect for our fractured age.

2 comments:

  1. I loved this book. When I got to the power point chapter it was - what the? and then whoa, this is brilliant.

    The last chapter just blew me away.

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  2. Still shocked by how gripping this way given the fractured timeline and variation in styles. I was prepared for the PowerPoint chapter to be gimmicky but it was gripping in a strange way. Too bad most PowerPoint isn't anywhere near this good! :-)

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