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Sunday, 14 April 2013

JENNIFER EGAN - A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD. NOVEL.


This is an intriguing book. The main source of fascination is the way that the story is told.

There are thirteen separate narratives, almost short stories, that feature a cast of about ten central figures who move into and out of each other's lives over the span of about four decades.

Sasha is one of the main characters. She is an assistant to a music producer, Bennie. Bennie's ex-wife, Stephanie, has a mentally disturbed brother, Jules, who once attacked a movie star, Kitty. Kitty worked with Dolly, a PR consultant whose daughter, Lulu, reappears in the end of the novel as Bennie's new assistant, when they are both working with an old boyfriend of Sasha's, Alex.

And on and on and on. Connection after connection between the stories, probably too many to count. The effect is to slowly and subtly create a view of a whole universe spanning decades, a universe with depth and breadth.

The second interesting aspect of the narrative is that the chronology slips and slides all over the place.

We go from the two thousands, to the eighties, to the nineties, back to the seventies, and then forward into the future, to 2022. The story is like a snake, weaving and twisting its way over and back, forward and sideways and backwards.

It should feel disorienting, all this chopping and changing, these new characters appearing all the time, but the individual stories are told so well that the reader doesn't have the chance to get bored or annoyed. The style and power of each story hold our attention.

It does, however, feel a little gimmicky at times, like a writing exercise. One story is told entirely on slides, as in a Powerpoint presentation on a computer, which is fun, but also feels a little forced. As if the writer was just showing off.

And there are obvious influences reflected in the novel. All the different viewpoints and the messing about with chronology is reminiscent of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. One story sounds exactly like Brett Easton Ellis and another employs the habit of putting asides, observations and extra information in long footnotes, a la David Foster Wallace.

Yet none of this detracts from the success of A Visit From the Goon Squad. We do manage to feel like we are reading about one whole universe, despite the thirteen disparate narratives. One character will be mentioned in passing in one section, and will then be the central figure in the next one. We slowly build up a picture of the insecure, fleeting, vibrant lives of the people who inhabit the novel, most of them involved in PR, the music business, academia, travel.

We see Sasha, and Benny and Alex and Scotty at different points in their lives. We are taken through their crises and triumphs, and given snapshots of a day or two at a time that tells us all we need to know. Some characters are central, some are bit-players, but all are rounded and given depth, and brought alive.

And in the end the fact that there are thirteen stories is a strength. It is obvious why it won the Pulitzer Prize. There is a variety of perspective and style and tone that makes the novel rich and deep and compelling.



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