Monday, 29 August 2011

Book #73 A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

A Visit From The Goon Squad

Recently published in paperback in June, A Visit From The Goon Squad begged the question of me 'When is a novel, not a novel?" because it is a novel, and it isn't. It reminded me of a game of tag, or a relay race. The novel opens with a chapter focusing on Sasha, jumps from Sasha to her boss Bennie, then from Bennie to Rhea, who knew Lou through Jocelyn, then to Lou's children and then to Jocelyn and then from Jocelyn to Scotty, who also knows Bennie, to Bennie's wife Stephanie, and so on and so forth. Each character only gets a single chapter but through their connection to each other act like pieces in a jigsaw to build up a portrait of music producer Bennie and his assistant Sasha, to whom every character is somehow linked, if not to each other.

It is very well done, and I liked it. Not only does it jump from character to character, Egan treats time in a non-linear way, so, often, when it leaps to the next character, it also leaps in time, and is a bit like a bouncing ball. Rhea's chapter for example covers the time period when she and Bennie were teenagers, her best friend Jocelyn is sleeping with a man named Lou.  Then we go on safari with Lou and his children, Jocelyn is in the past and he has a new girlfriend. Then we bounce again and Rhea and Jocelyn are visiting Lou on his deathbed before throwing the ball on to the next person.

Though it is set against the backdrop of the music industry and to a degree media and showbusiness, that wasn't really what interested me, it is, essentially 13 interconnected short stories, I enjoyed the way in which it became character rather than story led. Some stories are better than others, I liked Dolly's and Stephanie's section Rhea's Sasha's and Ted's. But, occasionally I found parts of it flashy and hollow like the world in which it is set. Though the final story brings the novel full circle, I was annoyed by both it and the previous chapter which takes place as a series of Powerpoint slides, which proved to be difficult to read on Kindle for iPad.

Despite the strangeness of form of the chapter however there was a lot expressed in a small amount of writing, a father struggling to connect with his borderline autistic son, a mother haunted by her past and a little girl observing it all. Overall, it is very accomplished as a piece of work, and I was absorbed by the 'Who next? When next?' angle.

I wondered why it was called 'A Visit From The Goon Squad' and I had to look "Goon Squad" up basically it means "gang of thugs"  and in the novel, two characters say "Time's a goon". The feeling Egan has put into words is that moment when the realisation of the passage of time jumps up and smacks you in the face and you wonder how you got to where you are, be it suddenly old or leading a life terribly distant from the one you expected to lead or once led. Stephanie, particularly is a good example of this, a former drug using punk with tattoos and rings suddenly finding herself a professional career woman playing tennis with Republicans in a country club and wondering how the hell she came to be there. It's also about the connections we lose, keep and renew and how sometimes, another person can be the architect of your story. And Egan has put this into words well, and in a way having just turned 30, I can appreciate. The music scene aspect is almost incidental, its all about well life, really, and how sections of time, become your story. I would recommend it, the more I think about it the cleverer it gets, but, it's proven to be a very Marmite book in Amazon reviews so I would tell anyone interested to bear in mind that this book largely dispenses with the traditional style of the novel. If you can get over that and take it as a character led piece about time and change and relationships, you may just enjoy it. 8/10

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