I’ve been safe in my reading choices recently, and by that I mean that I’ve read things that don’t really push my reading comfort zone. It was time to shake it up, and so I decided to pick up Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad on the recommendation of my friend and co-worker, Katie.
Described as both a novel and a short story collection on Amazon, Egan’s book does not fit easily into one genre definition. It doesn’t really hold tightly together like a novel, but the chapters don’t really feel separated enough to be truly individual short stories. Not that a short story collection can’t have cohesion; Junot Diaz’s This Is How You Lose Her is a great example of a collection cohesively centered around one character while allowing each story to have its own sense of self and finality. Egan’s book feels more like life really: moving and evolving snapshots in time. The jacket description says it focuses around Bennie, a music mogul, and his assistant, Sasha, as they live their lives, but that’s not really the case. It is as much about everyone around them as it is those two: Bennie’s first wife, her brother, his friends in high school, his high school friend later in life, a failed publicist and her daughter, Sasha’s children, that guy Sasha brought home once for a one-night-stand when she was still single, and others. Each of the 13 chapters visits these people during a specific moment in their lives, and there is a distinct sense that those lives are continuing off the page.
The closest comparison I can think of is Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, his short story/novel of the Vietnam War. Even then, though, the comparison is jagged and itchy. Egan plays tremendously with form, much more so than O’Brien: her chapters jump back and forth in time with seemingly no pattern, and some chapters are not written in a traditional story format, including one that was a magazine article. My favorite was the chapter written in Power Point slides. This non-linearity of time and upending of traditional form allows Egan to explore several different topics that are clearly of importance to her, particularly the intersection of music, technology, and relationships. It also allows her to really delve into world creation, whether recreating the hard rock and teenage angst of 1970’s California or building a rather prescient view of the near future where cell phones have evolved into more sophisticated (and apparently necessary) comm-link devices, a la the recent film, Her.
Based on the jacket description, this really isn’t the kind of book I’d just pick up without a recommendation. Much of what I had read about the book emphasized the parts about the rock and roll nature of the music business, particularly the hard core sex and drugs music culture of the late ’60’s and 1970’s. Not my normal M.O., but I found that those parts of the book were clearly purposeful rather than gratuitous, as is sometimes the case. And really, it was much more than that. This book is about real people and how they deal with success, failure, and redemption. I mentioned the chapter written as a Power Point presentation as a perfect example. It is written from the point of view of Sasha’s daughter: she journals using Power Point because it helps her create linearity in her thoughts. Despite the weird form, it is an absolutely gorgeous chapter of a girl trying to understand herself and her family as they try to understand how her autistic brother views life. Her brother is obsessed with pauses in music, and through her journaling, we see her and her parents if not fully understand his obsession learn how to communicate with him through it. The form of the chapter actually increases the reader’s understanding of the family’s complicated situation and the intense compassion behind every action. It’s really quite beautiful.
A Visit from the Goon Squad is not a book that hung on after I finished it. However, when I do think about it, it comes back in vivid flashes. And it’s sneaky: each time I think of it, my desire to read it again grows stronger. When Katie told me how much she loved it, she said it was one that she could just come back to time and time again, and each time she would find something new. I absolutely agree. I won’t read it again right away; it may be several years before I pick it up again. However, it is one that I fully expect to read again and will be excited to find new layers that I missed the first time. I can’t promise that everyone will love this book, and honestly I’m not sure I love it the way Katie does. It can’t be denied, however, that this is truly a remarkable book by a truly remarkable and exciting author.