Sunday, July 10, 2011

Finally, A Visit From The Goon Squad

A Visit from the Goon SquadA Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

This was a book I have been meaning to read for the last twelve months, ever since it started getting reviewed in the U.S. (e.g. this rave from the NY Times from July ’10), but then I had to wait for it to arrive in New Zealand and other books leap-frogged it in my reading queue.

Reason for my interest #1: In my bottom drawer I have an unpublished quasi-satirical rock'n'roll novel (which doubled as my MA thesis).

Reason for my interest #2: Structure. The book is basically 14 loosely linked chapters focussing of different characters, none of which would really stand up too well as a traditional short story.  The chapters deal with different times (from the 1970's to 2020's, but not necessarily chronologically), different places (mostly the US, but also an African safari and Naples) and employ different narrative approaches (first, second and third person narrators; faux-journalism; a girl's diary in powerpoint slides). How does something like this work? And why would something like this be attempted?

I now have some answers.

One could say the hub of the vortex of voices in the novel is Bennie Salazar, who we see at various points as an aloof boss, a struggling father post-divorce, a struggling husband pre-divorce, a teenage rocker, a hot ticket in the music industry and a pariah of the same industry years later.

Or perhaps his one-time assistant, Sasha is the hub (she gets centre stage in the opening chapter and her whereabouts drives the action of the novels final paragraphs, though the reader knows where she is from the preceding chapter).

Or perhaps there are two hubs, Bennie and Sasha, which seems perfectly reasonably.

But the true locus of the novel is its obsession with time. As one of the characters says, "Time's a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?" (Hence the title). The novel evokes an almost Proustian dread at the passing of time; the fact that things change so suddenly and arbitrarily, that security and succour aren't necessarily the recipe for happiness. No one character can be central in a book about the dispassionate river of time.

A Visit From The Goon Squad is about connections and disconnections, and the diffuse structure and disjointed narrative are how this is conveyed. Setting it in and around the music industry, which has always been fickle but over the last twenty years has seen drastic changes on the corporate side, the distribution and consumption of music, is genius.

I enjoyed touching down at various points in music history, be it the days of San Francisco hardcore in the 1980s (Dead Kennedys, Flipper et al), grunge (Bennie Salazar's big find, the fictional band The Conduits, were probably part of this wave in the 90's) and the near future where 'pointers' (pre-verbal children) buy music via handheld devices and drive the industry towards simplified songs.

This image from the NY Times Review from July 2010 is a better representation of the novel than any plot summary.

By the time I closed the book I had an appreciation for it, a respect even, and suspect it may creep onto my top ten list for books I've read this year...

But it was a book I hated at several points.

I hated the first chapter, where Sasha is lying on her shrink's couch and recounting her latest bout of kleptomania, which occurred on a first date with Alex (who will not feature in the book again till the final chapter, and even then he'll struggle for pages to remember her name and if they slept together or not). The reader is held at one remove from the action (we keep getting pulled back to the shrink's couch when we want to be there on that date) and it was a feeling that was kicked up several times throughout the book.

I hated the section told in the second person, because I hate everything written in the second person. Rather than pulling me closer to the story because it is about me (You do this, you do that) it re-enforces my distance from the narrative. Because no, my name is not Rob, I have not recently slashed my wrists with a box cutter and I never had sex with a football teammate in my car. Why was this chapter in the second person? Because there had to be a second person chapter in such a grab-bag novel. It just felt so mechanical, and cynical. But this is probably me reading with a writer's eyes, and is therefore this is invalid.

I hated some other, smaller moments like the unconvincing Scotty Hausmann concert in the final chapter which is supposed to come off as revelatory and uplifting but the reader is not given enough of a taste of the music or the moment to be impacted in any way beyond the native adrenalie we all feel when there are only a couple of pages of a book remaining.

But as I say, I appreciate the book now. Perhaps a second re-reading will iron out any of these wrinkles because I'll know that the contraption called A Visit From The Goon Squad is not interested in individual lives, not Bennie, not Sasha, not you/Rob, not Scotty Hausmann, because time doesn't care about them. (Hence the distancing techniques: Oh, I know you want to get close to Sasha, get inside her head and follow her for the next 200 pages, but that ain't the game we're playing).  And yet, as we see in the best chapters, there are ways to wrestle meaning from the abyss.

Such as the chapter told entirely with powerpoint slides. This may surprise some after my allergic reaction to the gimmickry of second person narration (but note: I've prepared a fair few powerpoints in my time in the public service). These slides, compiled by Sasha's daughter and telling, in their own way, the story of her autistic brother's obsession with pauses in rock songs, speak simply to the questions at the heart of the novel. How did we get here? Where are we going? The song pauses are false endings, reminders of mortality but also a temporary retrieve from it; a high concept metaphor which is made to work in the low concept powerpoint presentation. The drama in this chapter is ripe with the fact that parents were once children, and children will become parents. The family live on the edge of a desert that used to be lawns and parks and golf courses, and is now dominated by a forest of solar panels that must even capture the moonlight to power the powerpoint presentations of the world.

A Visit From The Goon Squad takes risks, tackles the big questions, has its successes and it failures. I do not think it is a great book. Yet.

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