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A case could definitely be made that reviewing Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad at this point is absurd. The book was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction this year. Clearly, the people have spoken. It’s a great book and perhaps there’s nothing else to say.
There’s got to be, though, right?
What is it about? The plot (actually, the book doesn’t revolve around a plot proper, but rather the chapters denote the manifestation of change—a multitude of stories—without ever forming that concrete arc we anticipate from books that move a character fluidly from point to point) sporadically visits, over the course of many years, people involved directly with or existing on the periphery of a 1970s San Francisco punk band called the Flaming Dildos. Most of them, like all of us, begin as teenagers, and then grow up—working jobs, having kids, finding that faces (among other things) change and they no longer recognize people they had known.
There is a wonderful video excerpt on pbs.org from a Jeffrey Brown interview with Jennifer Egan. This interview was filmed last year, before the book won the Pulitzer. During the interview, Egan explains that she expressly meant to deal with themes of time and change in A Visit from the Goon Squad. The music industry crept in solely as a vehicle for illustrating that change. “Music cuts through time like almost nothing else,” Egan says. “It makes us feel like we’re back in an earlier moment.”
(One thing that I couldn’t help thinking while watching the excerpt of Egan’s interview is how much A Visit from the Goon Squad reminds me of Faulkner. I wish that there were a video of Faulkner somewhere, making off-the-cuff remarks about The Sound and the Fury, explaining all about his use of time in the novel to a very interested interviewer.)
In addition to music, the novel also delves into societal changes with regards to texting and social media—at one point, the advent of social networks are elegantly compared to a sort of Judgment Day: “We’ll rise up out of our bodies and find each other again in spirit form. We’ll meet in a new place, all of us together, and first it’ll seem strange, and pretty soon it’ll seem strange that you could ever lose someone, or get lost.”
Later in her interview, Egan tells Brown that she wanted each chapter to be a surprise, in that time has passed between each section. It is the job of the reader to glean how much time, and this task definitely can be disorienting. She comments that this particular attribute of the book is meant to imitate the phenomenon that time is constantly moving, changes always happening, but these changes occur so slowly that it’s startling once we actually recognize that things are much different. Although I’m not completely convinced that popping in and out of time, with different people, at vastly different junctures in their lives is the best way to indicate those unpredictable, slowly occurring changes, I do think that it is a time-tested and brilliant way to denote the bewilderment of the plodding, capriciousness of “growing up.”
My favorite part about Egan’s work is that she is great at that amazing thing those Modernist authors like Faulkner and Woolf were so pro at: describing the indescribable. Way to take all of my unspoken, indescribable (therefore safely hidden) fears about getting older and put them in a Pulitzer Prize-winning book for all to see, Jennifer Egan.
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan is the May selection for Books and Bars, and can be purchased, among other places, at Magers & Quinn Booksellers.