It’s a big day in the Bindrim household: my birthday, which makes this post my very first as a newly minted 26-year-old. I feel the sage wisdom of mid-20s adulthood flowing to my brain already.
I wish I could say I read some aging-oriented book this week, maybe one of those multi-generational dealies (a la The Joy Luck Club), or if I were feeling dark, The Picture of Dorian Gray. But I’ve spent years grappling with the occasional misfortune of having a summer birthday—(“No I don’t think your family vacation to Hawaii is more important than my party”)—which for the most part means ignoring it for as long as possible, and then closing out my procrastination by haphazardly choosing a bar at which to drink away my mortality-related sorrows among friends.
So A Visit From The Goon Squad may not have been a choice tied to the chronology of my life, but it hardly matters. Because what it lacked in personal relevance, it more than made up for in being pretty fucking awesome.
When Goon Squad came out, to much aclaim, I had already availed myself of pretty much the entire Jennifer Egan oeuvre. She is without question a beautiful writer, but her books to date have had the tendency to disappoint [me]; perhaps it’s because her writing is so amazing that I always find myself wishing her plots could keep up.
Goon Squad has none of these shortfalls, because it is in many ways without plot. The book follows the lives of two “main” characters—Bennie, an aging punk rocker and record executive, and Sasha, his assistant. But through a series of vignettes, we also meet another dozen people whose lives either are currently, have already or will at some point intersect with Bennie’s or Sasha’s. These vignettes appear in first person and third person; in one case through a magazine article and in another via PowerPoint slides.
This narrative approach was heralded by critics when Goon Squad came out, but actually kept me from picking up the book for many months as I am ever-wary of gimmicky novel structures. Well, let it be known that I was totally wrong. Not only does the book’s format eliminate what I’d consider Egan’s occasional weaknesses as an author, it also enables her to create characters who seem that much richer for being visible through different lenses, and at different points in their lives.
I write a lot on this blog about characters “seeming real”—to this end, good character development is (to me) writing people who through both their behavior and (where available) their thoughts, seem like they could exist in day-to-day life. What Egan does in Goon Squad is more than good character development. By weaving her characters’ stories together, she ultimately reminds you of the entire fabric of human existence, where every person has a web of other people to whom they are attached, and each of those people have, in turn, their own web. And each of those people in each of those webs has their own experiences, memories and emotions. The general effect of this kind of reminder is, put bluntly, a mindfuck, and Goon Squad has had a distinct effect on my ability (or lack thereof) to not stare at people on the subway, wondering about the details of their lives, so simultaneously close and far from my own.
Long story short, this is a really amazing novel, and worth all of the hype I so dutifully scoffed at for the last six months. I recommend against the paperback, only because it’s poorly bound and during a particularly careless handling this weekend, mine dispensed various pages of itself all over the subway. But I have heard tell of these things called e-readers you might try. (I wouldn’t know firsthand, as I am in my mid-20s. I have no idea what the kids are using.)
One of my only gripes about Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, which I loved, was the appearance of a book within the book, supposedly written by a middle-aged woman whose writing sounded an awful lot like, well, Jonathan Franzen. Why bother with this whole construct if you’re not going to give that character a unique voice?
Franzen could take a few pages out of Egan’s book (quite literally, if he buys it in paperback). With Goon Squad, it feels as though the characters existed first—with their distinct voices and feelings and worldviews—and as the author surrounded by such vivid personalities, Egan had no choice but to present them this way, individually, and hope that the collective effect of their stories would be novel-like, cohesive-ish. It was a risky move, to my mind, one that could have easily flopped. Fortunately for Egan, and even more fortunately for us, it definitely didn’t.
TITLE: A Visit from the Good Squad
AUTHOR: Jennifer Egan
PAGES: 340 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: The Keep, The Invisible Circus, Look at Me
SORTA LIKE: Juliet, Naked meets The Imperfectionists
FIRST LINE: “It began the usual way, in the bathroom of the Lassimo Hotel.”