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Time’s a goon.

October 10, 2011

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, Murdoch Books, $19.99

For some reason, Pulitzer Prize-winning novels never seem to warrant the publicity of, say, Booker winners. Perhaps the prize just gets much less attention in Australia, but every year when the winning book arrives in the bookshop where I work, we all stand there feeling as though we’ve missed something (“who is this author? When did they announce the prize?”)

Several years ago, I read and thoroughly enjoyed Jennifer Egan’s The Keep, so I was excited to see that her newest novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, was this year’s Surprise Pulitzer Winner.

Although it’s a novel, Goon Squad—a little like David Mitchell’s brilliant Cloud Atlas—is really a collection of stories that revolve around two characters and their friends, lovers, and colleagues. Each chapter affords us a glimpse into the life of a particular character, and Egan deftly switches back and forth in time and perspective: we go from contemporary New York to a 1970s African safari, from first-person to a series of Powerpoint slides from a twelve-year-old girl.

This tricky structure works brilliantly, and Goon Squad is at once a poignant and witty exploration of contemporary America, and an ambitious but effective collection of character studies. Despite her sprawling cast, Egan elegantly demonstrates the connectedness of their lives—socially, emotionally, and technologically—by spinning a tight and compelling narrative web of stories that link their protagonists’ fates.

At the centre of Egan’s novel—and the focus of its first two chapters—are Bennie, a successful music producer who sprinkles gold flakes into his coffee, and his enigmatic assistant, Sasha, a secret kleptomaniac. We first meet Sasha in present-day New York, as she gives in to her urge to steal during a blind date; then we meet Bennie, middle-aged and trying unsuccessfully to have a meaningful conversation with his rather distant twelve-year-old son. From there, we jump to 1970s San Francisco, where Bennie is in a band called The Flaming Dildos, and his friend Jocelyn gets involved with a sleazy record producer named Leo (later, we accompany Leo on an African Safari with his teenage children and doe-eyed graduate student love interest); Leo becomes Bennie’s mentor, and Bennie’s career flourishes while his high school bandmate Scotty spends his days fishing in the East River and working as a janitor (“things had gotten sort of dry for me”).

Sasha and Bennie are not so much the protagonists of Egan’s novel as they are the dominos that set all of its stories in motion. They create a narrative ripple effect, a series of expanding concentric circles that represent all those lives that Sasha’s and Bennie’s become entwined with: in the 80s, Sasha’s Uncle Ted tries to find his runaway teenage niece in the alleyways of Naples; decades later, Sasha’s daughter Alison tries to make sense of her family dynamics through a series of surprisingly moving Powerpoint slides; Jules, Bennie’s brother-in-law, catastrophically self-destructs his journalism career when he attempts to assault a doe-eyed movie star during a magazine interview that’s doomed from the start thanks to Jules’s manifest despair over writing celebrity profiles:

“’Rumor has it,’ I say, my mouth full of half-masticated hamburger in a calculated effort to disgust my subject, thus puncturing her prophylactic shield of niceness and commencing the painstaking attrition of her self-control, ‘that you’ve become involved with your costar.’”

But Egan elegantly brings all of these threads together in her final chapter, set in a near-distant future where communication is dominated by handheld gadgets and wildly abbreviated text-speak (“U hav sum nAms 4 me?”), and small children appear to dictate the direction of popular culture. Coming full circle, we revisit Alex, Sasha’s date in the first chapter, and discover the whereabouts of various characters from earlier in the narrative. But Egan doesn’t prettily tie up all her loose ends, and there’s a pleasing ambiguity to the book’s conclusion, a sense that some resolutions can only be imagined; it’s impossible to know how time has treated everyone who crosses our path in life.

Egan’s future world is at once wryly familiar—text-speak and handheld gadgets are pretty much the norm already—and oddly comforting. Despite the increasing influence of technology and popular culture, our connections with others, however fleeting, are what remain constant; ultimately, these are what shape the trajectory of our lives.

 

This is perhaps the point of Goon Squad, and why it works so well. Egan’s characters constantly bump and shift against one another as their lives progress, and even the briefest crossing of paths can be significant. This narrative patchwork of moments and experiences creates a coherent and compelling whole that artfully reflects its rather ambiguous title: “time’s a goon, right?” one character asks another. “You gonna let that goon push you around?” Push us around it might, but it’s a wonderfully absorbing ride.

 

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