Book by Jennifer Egan
Annotation by Kate Maruyama
In my recent exploration books with different points of view which take place over different periods of time, Jennifer Egan’s latest, A Visit from the Goon Squad was a natural pick. I try not to decide what’s going on in a book before an author tells me, but Jennifer Egan’s style and the disjointedness of time and place of this particular book had me guessing, constantly, what she was up to with the structure. In the end, I decided to let the book work for me, listen to it as it played along, as one would with an anthology, or a music mix from a dear friend. I was not disappointed.
Where Middlesex told one large sweeping story over generations in chronological order, it lost focus in places. Goon Squad never loses focus on its individual scenes and in the end, it becomes apparent that the entire piece holds together. Each of the characters, isolated in their own short stories, have their lives carefully threaded together here and there throughout the book and by the end Goon Squad comes together as a portrait of a musical, moving web of humanity. We don’t really get a larger picture of a beginning/middle/end story, such as we get in Middlesex, but Egan was careful to make sure we got inside each of the players involved at one point or another so that by the end, the book has created its own sense of nostalgia. We feel the buoyed excitement of seeing an old friend on the street years and years later, “Hey, that guy. I know that guy!” And the old days come flooding back. Pretty amazing for 288 pages.
The first chapter/story is of Sasha in her early twenties, on an awkward date. Egan’s gaze is so close that we learn a lot about Sasha, that she’s a shoplifter and a thief, but that she does this to fill an inner need rather than to make a living. We then meet Bennie, trying like hell to connect with his son, Chris. Egan goes on to bounce around through time, taking us with one (sometimes vaguely) recognizable character into a completely different world. On an adolescent romp through grunge band era San Francisco, on a very well-moneyed but disastrous safari to Africa, to student life in NYC which ends in an X-induced unfortunate trip into the East River, into a not-too distant future where the music industry is run by its huge sales to children. We meet Bennie as a teenager, in his prime, then as an aging producer. We meet Sasha again in her teenage runaway years, as a young corporate assistant, then married with children through the eyes of her daughter.
The point of view shifts, mostly in third, sometimes in first, one time in second person. I have little patience with second person for long patches, but Egan makes it work in the pages leading up to Sasha’s imbalanced buddy Rob’s dizzying drug-hazed night in Manhattan. It is a night that will have repercussions through Sasha and Drew (her later husband)’s life toward the end of the book.
Egan adopts the Latin-American magic realism trick of omniscient projection, which is fun. Especially in “Safari”, where, having introduced us to a cluster of characters in close third, and in close circumstances, Egan leads us through their adventure and then projects: “The members of Ramsey’s safari have gained a story they’ll tell the rest of their lives…Dean, whose success will elude him until middle age, when he’ll land the role of a paunchy outspoken plumber…” She uses this technique in specific sections throughout the book, which gives us a sense of the larger fabric of interwoven lives, and helps hold the larger narrative together.
Egan messes with form in “Great Rock and Roll Pauses,” the second-to-last chapter, by telling the story from the point of view of Sasha’s daughter with a hi-tech journal. The result is a series of charts that manage to tell a poignant and difficult story despite their complicated format of bubble maps, flow charts and other illustrations. This section resonated with me, as my children are learning to write with bubble maps and various charts, all of which give me the giggles while creating a sense of despair over the loss of the written form. But Egan is able to effectively create a portrait of a waning marriage, a view into dysfunctional parenthood and a nostalgia for Sasha’s prior life as a snarky assistant, or further back as a headstrong world-traveling runaway–all with charts.
Egan has created something new, in an age of e-readers and people ranting about the death of print. I read my version on the e-reader, which, ironically, made the abovementioned charts hard to read (they wouldn’t enlarge). While I don’t think I’ll be incorporating bubble maps into my work anytime soon, I feel a bit stronger introducing a few more points of view into my story and knowing that even if it doesn’t follow beginning/middle/end, even if it doesn’t provide all of the details through a span of years, a larger story can be told in smaller brushstrokes, as long as the web which holds it together is very carefully woven.