Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad: A Slow-burning Masterpiece?

Jennifer EganJennifer Egan Image via WikipediaWhy did Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad, published in 2010, take off so slowly? But take off it did, first to the top 10 on the New York Times Bestseller list. Next it unexpectedly beat out Jonathan Franzen's Freedom for the National Book Critics Circle Award. And this year it was crowned with the prestigious Pulitzer Prize awarded by Columbia University. Soon it is to be adapted into a TV series by HBO.

Is this a slow-burning bestseller that is going to rise and rise, until it becomes, a few years or decades from now, a classic masterpiece?

I was curious and recently decided to join a Goodreads group to read it (it's being read by Goodreads during the whole month of June). It was a fascinating experience, sharing my feelings as I went along with other very dedicated readers, most of them women in the middle of their career and/or young mothers.  Most of us felt a little uncomfortable with the way the novel begins: it comes at you as a puzzling collage of what appears at first as unrelated snippets of life - disgruntled characters facing middle age and cracks in their career... I began to wonder whether that was the reason why it started out as a "slow-burning" best seller.

If we were feeling a little displaced as readers, this is not viewed as a drawback by critics. Just to mention one, Ryan Britt, whose comment is particularly telling: "...the structure of the novel is also the sort of thing that when described might sound a little too complicated or “high concept” for its own good. Every chapter in A Visit From the Goon Squad takes place from the perspective of a different character, sometimes in different tenses, and almost completely out of chronological order. Telling a story from the perspective of numerous characters and without a regard for a linear narrative isn’t a brand new concept, but the way Egan employs it is particularly effective."

No doubt about it: the multiplicity of characters and points of views are jarring at first...One wonders which characters are central and how to "connect" with them. This for a reader is rather an uncomfortable position to be in. One suspects there is a bit of literary gimmickry at work here.

What kept me reading was curiosity: I wondered how it would all knit together into a story. 

And of course, I kept going because the writing is first class and reality is closely observed.  I was presented with a world I didn't know  - the musical punk rock industry from the 1970s to the present (and even with a glimpse to the future, ten years from now) - and remained fascinated by the glitzy glamor and the cheesy underside. 

Some images hit me hard, like this description of  Art History professor, Ted Hollander's promenade in Naples:
"He passed churches blistered with grime, moldering palazzi whose squalid interior leaked sounds of wailing cats and children. Soiled, forgotten coats of arms were carved above their massive doorways, and these unsettled Ted: such universal, defining symbols made meaningless by nothing more than time." (Chapter 11)
Also, some characters' names are unforgettable, like PR rock start LaDoll who was a blond sex bomb with  "roving, algorythmic eyes". Yes, this is the work of a master at crafting language. Superb writing.

Still, after I finished it, I wasn't fully satisfied. The string of disconnected chapters had indeed coalesced into something of a whole, and in a rather unusual way. In pulling the story together, the virtuosity of the author was remarkable in at least two ways: 
(1) in weaving the plot from the point of diverse characters, with great attention to the telling detail (I have never learned so much about the punk rock scene!); 
(2) in writing from numerous points of views (one for each chapter), with a voice that perfectly matches the different characters. 

Nowhere is this more evident than in the chapter where Rob, the "half gay" friend of one of the novel's main characters, a mixed-up woman named Sasha, goes swimming in the East River at sunrise and drowns. That particular chapter, written from the "you" standpoint is a genuine literary tour de force. Indeed "you" is a rare and notoriously hard to manage point of view (most books are written either in the first or third person). Yet Egan manages to describe everything that is going on between no less than three characters (Rob, Sasha and Sasha's new boyfriend). By adopting the "you" mode (Rob is the one who uses it in the chapter), Egan succeeds in expressing in an original way the fact that Rob suffers from deep identity problems. He's gay but not quite, he's in love with Sasha but not quite, so he says "you" as a way to win over your adhesion to what he is thinking.

Yet all this is not fully satisfactory. For example, one of the last chapters meant to describe how Sasha ends up is laid out like a series of scientific diagrams, graphs and boxes of varying shapes. That is of course visually intriguing but it is not an effective way of narrating a story. As a reader, you miss out on what you have come to expect from a work a fiction: plot development and linkages between characters, events and settings. It reads more like a scientific summary than a novel. If intended as a new, experimental form of fiction (which I imagine was the idea), then it doesn't work. It leaves the reader out in the cold, yearning for more. In no way could you connect and enter in the mind of any of the characters ensconced in the graphs: no empathy is possible.

More generally, empathy, or rather the lack of it, seems to be the big problem here. You can't jump from one character to the next every time you start a new chapter (you can do that two or three times but not through a whole book), no matter how enticing or well-written. Too many points of views, too many characters, none of which you, the reader are given a chance to get close to (although I'm sure that's great for a TV series: plenty of material here to work from).
What a reader wants from a novel (in my opinion) is to get into one (or more) character's mind - the protagonist(s) - and stay there to the end of the book, living through his/her/their upheavals or drama or what-have-you, that then resolve themselves in a good or bad way (depending on whether it's a tragedy or comedy). Here, characters do grow, mature, get old and come to grips with their lives, but it's never fully a tragedy or a comedy and you, the reader, can't get close to any of them. You're left on the outside, a "voyeur", observing somebody's life unfold in...yes, a pretty "normal" way.  

As a result, you  don't choose a character, there's none you feel like "inhabiting", and there are no raptures, high emotions or big tears. At first I thought Sasha would be "the one" for me - she reappears several times through the story - but I couldn't reach out to her as she was repeatedly seen "at a distance", through the eyes of other characters and not herself. And that was a disappointment. 

Ultimately, while this novel is brilliant and brilliantly written, I couldn't get drawn into it. Sure, it's about important things, Time and Death (that's the "goon" in the title) and the banality of everyone's daily life and how we all end up in the same place in spite of our struggles...But a whole novel about this? Mmm... Hit-and-run literature, that's the way I felt about it! 

All right, "hit and run" might sound a little harsh, but it does describe how all these snippets of life grab you by their very brilliance...and leave you in the cold.  Still, this is undoubtedly Literature with a capital "L" and not women's fiction, much less chick lit. 

My hope is that Jennifer Egan will put her undoubted talent in her next book and focus on a single story line from start to finish, and not leave us poor readers out in the lurch. If she does that, I'm sure she'll produce a classic!

Wonder how you will react. Do read it and let me know. Or join Goodreads and read it with a group of readers online - a fun way to do it and get reactions from each other.

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