Tuesday, August 9, 2011

"A Visit From the Goon Squad" by Jennifer Egan

There are moments in each of our lives when we stop, look, and wonder, "How did I get here?".  Says one character in Egan's novel, "Time is a goon," and A Visit From the Goon Squad explores those melancholy reflections that occur when the passing of time becomes explicit.  Though the book easily could have felt heavy or dull, Egan's expert use of structure and voice has created an engaging and sincere novel.

One of the things I especially liked in the book was its unusual structure, as in some ways it is set up more as a collection of short stories.  A Visit From the Good Squad opens with narration by Sasha; the next chapter occurs earlier chronologically, and the narrator switches to a minor character from Sasha's story.  This set-up continues for a number of chapters, until the timeline reverses and starts to go forward in time.  Each chapter is told by a completely different narrator, though all the narrators are interrelated (and Egan does include quick "aha" moments where the reader is able to piece together a connection).  What really makes this structure work is that it allows the reader to understand each character from multiple points of views: through his or her own voice, the voices of others, and through different points in time.

This complicated structure would not have worked without the ability to make each new narrator distinct.  Egan also does this skillfully, though because I listened to the novel through audiobook, I also had the assistance of Roxana Ortega, the audio narrator, who did an excellent job of creating a different sound, tone, and pacing for each character.  Bennie Salazar, the record executive around which most of the characters center, has an enthusiastic outside which hides his feelings of inadequacy.  Sasha's sarcastic inner tone isn't revealed in her polite conversations with others.

There were a few chapters that didn't ring true to me.  One, which concerns a disgraced publicist who takes on a dictator ("The General") as a client, is too absurd to be believable or fit in with the other chapters.  Another, from a magazine writer accused of sexually assaulting a famous starlet, has uncharacteristic anger and structurally feels out of place.  Both of these chapters occur near the middle, and I found those before and after much stronger.

Music and New York City are the backdrop for Egan's characters, but they aren't central to the story as a whole.  Instead, A Visit from the Goon Squad follows characters and their relationships (the attempts, the failures, the disappointments), ambitions (achieved and unachieved), and attempts to make sense of who we are and how we got here.

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