oday I’d like to showcase a book called A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, published in 2010 and winner of the Pulitzer.
This book is really a study in form, I think. If you’re interested in the linked story approach to revealing events in a life, it is a dazzling model. We see how linked stories are so different from a novel. Incidental characters in one story become central figures in their own stories with sometimes only a glancing reference to the main characters. Just like life, whereas in a novel we follow the characters in a more sustained way. It’s true that Goon Squad has a slightly elegiac register, with lots of dreams gone wrong. But there’s so much delight in it, too. Where’s Waldo? He’s there. Right there!
What is interesting about this feat of writing is, first of all, the reactions to it, and then secondly, what a writer can do with it.
WHO IS WHO AND WHAT IS WHAT?
The blurb on the book jacket straightens out the wildly careening narrative to tame the plot lines into something more linear. Let’s start with Bennie, a music producer, who discovered an incredible band, and his assistant Sasha, who has a gorgeous mind, troubled for sure, but engaging all the same, even as we slowly see the tragedies that impinge upon her. People who touch these lives tangentially make up some of the stories, and tangents are added to the tangents. Straightening out this plot is like cold water thrown on the bonfire, a fire slightly out of control, but only slightly, and not too worrisome for all that.
Goodreads had a number of people that hated the book: too depressing; too chaotic, too gimmicky; and even too boring for all that. Others loved it.
WHAT TO MAKE OF IT ALL?
Of course, the French writer Proust was an inspiration.
Proust’s quote from In Search of Lost Time talks about searching for our youth as well as our self, but where? The answer: in “some house or garden.” He suggests, “It is in ourselves that we should rather seek to find those fixed places, contemporaneous with different years.” This, in fact, is what the book explores. And the goon squad? That’s time, like a squad of goons, ready to beat us up.
I saw the title of a poem, “Remembering Spring in Spring,” which I think captures Proust’s view of memory. You are remembering what you are remembering while you are seeing something for the first time. Special cookies called madeleines will do that, at least for him.
Dazzling first chapter.
If you can find the book in the library, sit down and read the first chapter, called “Found Objects,” with Sasha, a harpist, a kleptomaniac, and an artist really.
Dangers of 2nd chapter.
Then Sasha is buttoned up in chapter 2, a planet around Bennie’s sun. Now Bennie here is at an unflattering spot in his life. So we have two strikes against this chapter, particularly because we adored Sasha.
Linked stories and changing the time period.
Okay, now this is a stroke of genius. Back in the so-so chapter 2 we see that Bennie’s mentor, Lou, has just died, Lou of the seducing of the pretty girls; Bennie’s wife Stephanie is gone because of Lou. We have a slant reference to the band of Bennie’s youth, The Flaming Dildos. So now where is the book going to go? What’s an author to do?
We return to the band of Bennie’s youth, but not from Bennie’s point of view. Let’s try the story from the point of view of one of the girl’s involved with the band. Plus, let’s add this girl’s friend and her ruinous affair with Lou. Back in time we go and the links fan out, each chapter a whole and delicious story on its own.
ALL THESE PEOPLE
Economy of characterization over generations!
Remember the Lou who died? We get Lou in his prime in Africa, this time from his daughter’s point of view. A warrior, an actual African warrior, appears, who will father many children, who, in turn have many more children. One of the grandchildren, Joe, will appear in NY, marry Lulu (who is Lulu?) and preserve his grandfather’s dagger under plexiglass.
This all has the feel of “Where’s Waldo?” in the book and it’s a lot of fun to spot him or her throughout. Joe! I know all about you, we think, when we see him much later.
Feckless, troubled friend of Sasha from the first chapter. We worry about friend and in the space of one night the friend experiences the rollercoaster ride of drugs, connecting with friends, recent release from rehab, a terrible betrayal of Sasha and well, I’m not going to tell you what happens. Good ingredients: worry, betrayal, and what I’m not telling you.
Uncle Ted is paid by his wife’s brother to look for Sasha who has run away when she was younger. A sighting in Italy, so Uncle Ted is in Italy. But he doesn’t look for his niece! Naturally she finds him, he loses her, and is then hell-bent for leather on finding her. She is lost, but so is he.
There’s a woman no one likes an outsider, who lives next door. Sasha, in the course of this story, is increasingly alienated from what is important to her. Sasha winds up in the neighbor’s yard, the neighbor’s territory, at the end. Co-opted by the outside.
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE FORM, ‘BOUT THE FORM
First, we have many interwoven points of view. Then, even a PowerPoint from Sasha’s 12-year-old daughter, Alison, which details the family dynamics.
What could we do, ourselves, Dear Reader, instead of a PowerPoint? Design a cereal box? A board game? A driver’s manual?
And speaking of form, a writer friend said about the book, “Oh, I thought of it as a novel.” She did?
One of our dear readers had the following observation:
It occurs to me that if you add an “i” just before the “t” in Godot” you have “Waiting for Go do it ” . If “I” were inserted as a character in the play, that’s what I would be saying over and over to the others, “what are you WAITING FOR? GO DO IT !”
And that I character would be straight from Egan’s Goon Squad: peripatetic, constantly moving, flush with many people, as if each fragment in a life stood up, got legs, and started running around. (To no avail, I must add.) So there the two works are, balanced on the scale of activity. Godot: no movement and so it goes; Goon Squad: all movement and nothing goes the way it’s supposed to.
Proust anyone? Nothing much happens. Who does that remind you of? Honestly, those French writers!