Friday, 15 July 2011

Book Review: Jennifer Egan “A Visit From The Goon Squad”

If time is on my side, I read approximately two books a week. The divide is fairly evenly split between fiction and non-fiction, old and new releases, female and male authors. But the soaraway Book Of The Year 2011 to date is Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad.

Based on the recommendation of a trustworthy brother, I snapped it up and devoured it instantly… racing through the chapters and abandoning the TV for several days in order to lie on the sofa, sip wine and read – and re-read – the carefully constructed chapters of this book, that cross all manner of timescapes, genre and literary permutation.

A Visit From The Goon Squad has (so far) won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction (among a raft of other accolades), been a New York Times bestseller in 2010 (hardback) and 2011 (paperback), and is currently in production by the wondrous HBO for an upcoming TV adaptation. For this, I cannot wait. (But will.)

The goon squad of the title refers to the thuggery of union activists in the 19th Century. However, for this book, Egan is reclaiming the 19th Century ‘goon squad’ to refer to the heavy-handed tactics of that cruel creature known as Time on her protagonists – who experience the remorseless effects of time (past, present and future) in increasingly stark ways.

While some have declared this book to be no more than a series of loosely connected short stories, I don’t think this is true. Yes, each chapter of A Visit From The Goon Squad places a different person at the centre of the narrative, but each chapter (whether the chronology of it precedes or postdates the previous) also builds on the story arc of the whole book, to ultimately create something I can’t recall ever having seen in another novel. So perhaps those who’ve called Egan’s latest book a “post, post modern book” (eg the Wall Street Journal) are right, although Egan herself refutes that in the link here.

In some tenuous way or another, the many characters and protagonists in A Visit From the Goon Squad are connected to music executive Bennie Salazar and his kleptomaniac assistant Sasha. But the volume of characters is not confusing, the unidentified leaps through time make sense, and the reader’s emotional investment in the characters is extraordinary considering the fleeting time we spend with them.

And time is what we cannot escape in this book. However subtly the concept is inferred, we always sense a dark clouded clock looming over the heads of the characters as they try to eek an existence. Speaking to The Daily Beast in 2010, Egan said: “Time is the stealth goon, the one you ignore because you are so busy worrying about the goons right in front of you.” And this quote seems to underscore the simple message at the root at the heart of an intricate book of complexly interwoven stories about being lost to time.

1 comment:

  1. An interesting review, many thanks. It's the first review I've read to mention your interpretation of 'The Goon Squad', although I did read somewhere else that is a reference to an Elvis Costello song (?)

    Anyway, I wasn't blown away by the book but it's good to read a well thought out review.

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