Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Jennifer Egan and 'A Visit from the Goon Squad'

You may have been noticing Jennifer Egan's name suddenly popping up in  all sorts of places and not without reason.   She has won the prestigious National Book Critics Award and Pulitzer Prize for her latest novel A Visit from the Goon Squad.  

This is a most exciting novel - though it is not a novel as we know it.   The author claims she was influenced by Proust and The Sopranos - a curious combination - in its writing.   Certainly it is underpinned by conceptions of time and space.   It is not a novel in that it does not conform to the usual narrative structure.   The characters move backwards and forwards through time with large gaps in their development in a frequently dystopian world centred on the music industry in the States in the 70's through to future time.  Egan is not shy of experimenting using different typefaces; narrative in the first and third person - and, even in one chapter, in the second; long footnotes in one section, text-speak and, most interesting, a complete chapter done as a PowerPoint presentation.   This latter startles initially.   It is written by the sister of a seemingly autistic young man who is obsessed by the length and occurrence of gaps in rocksongs and the nature of PowerPoint reproduces this thereby reinforcing Egan's conception of time and space.   What seems to be a gimmick actually is a strong element of the novel.

The book concerns a disparate group of characters who interact spasmodically, sometimes with the main character, sometimes with their own stories and sometimes in a 'chain'.   Memory is important and, at times, she leaps forward in order to go back.   The cast is big and, at times, it can be difficult to remember who did what to whom.   Basically, it concerns one, Bennie Salazar, who, with a group of friends in the 70's, starts a second rate punk band called The Flaming Dildos and then, in time, sets up his own record label and becomes a music producer.   He employs Sasha as his assistant who has lead and goes on to lead a hugely varied life.   Her significance is not only that it is her daughter that writes the PowerPoint chapter but Egan introduces her in the very first lines of the book and she is the last character referred to in the end.   In other words she bookends the narrative creating a cycle within which the rest of the cast act and interact.   In the course of the book, we meet the varied members of this cast whose lives connect and disconnect with Bennie and Sasha and none of whom are dull.

This is an important book and unique.   It is not postmodern but rather post postmodern and the chances Egan takes pay off.   It is fun to read and she brings both irony and romance to it.   What appears to be unstructured and chaotic in fact reflects life as we do know it - even if few of us actually get to live at quite the pace of most of her creations.   By the end of it, you can nod your head and agree, yes, there is both Proust and The Sopranos there.

U shld by it!

1 comment:

  1. A really well thought out review - thanks! I've just finished reading this and I have to admit I wasn't overly impressed. The stylistic innovations were exciting, but the overall effect was messy for me. I couldn't muster any sort of empathy for the characters either, but maybe a reread is in order judging by the number of glowing reviews.

    My latest post: A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan