BY ERIC MARKOWSKY
[This inventive book is a C4 Great Read.]
Author: Jennifer Egan
2010, Anchor Books, Random House Inc.
Filed Under: Literary, Short Stories
The Internet probably doesn’t need another glowing review of A Visit from the Goon Squad, but I wanted to write one anyways, more for myself than anything else. Because I do love this book even though parts of it irritated me. Parts of it irritated me deeply, and yet I finished it in just a couple of sittings and then went around recommending it to friends and blathering about the story written as a series of power point slides.
When I first flipped through Goon Squad, “Great Rock and Roll Pauses” caught my eye like a campus streaker: I couldn’t help looking again even though I wasn’t really sure I wanted to. I assumed the power point slides featured in a larger work, but when I realized that they actually comprised their own 75 page story, I prepared for the worst. Here come the gimmicks, I thought.
And I wasn’t wrong about the gimmicks; this book (whether you call it a novel or a collection of linked stories) is full of odd formal tricks and devices. I was just wrong about how well they’d all work in the end. Goon Squad is an ambitious experiment in narrative structure, successful in the extremes of its inventiveness and its willingness to overthrow all of our expectations about time.
I didn’t know it then, but I first encountered Goon Squad almost two years ago when a friend sent me something to read while I was recovering from surgery. “Safari” is about a domineering record executive named Lou on an African vacation with his kids and his new girlfriend. The story’s greatest strength lies in the shifting relationships between the characters which set the stage for disasters still yet to come when the vacation is over. The omniscient narrator reveals the future in short flashes that become more frequent towards the story’s close.
When I first came across Lou in “Ask Me If I Care,” Goon Squad’s third story, deja vu sent me skimming through the rest of the collection. “Safari” was the next story in sequence, and I reread it with a redoubled sense of doom, knowing not only the reveals about the future offered by “Safari” itself but a whole additional cast of characters who Lou was destined to cross.
I remembered, too, the exchange my friend and I had about the way “Safari” collapsed its timeline. My friend had mixed feelings about Egan’s “flash forwards.” He felt they opened the story to an epic narrative sweep, but sometimes it felt like a cheap way of “tacking on dramatics without really developing a story.”
On Thu, Apr 1, 2010 at 3:10 PM, Eric Markowsky <> wrote:
Cheap is often a good word for these kinds of flash forwards. They can undermine a story by rendering the narrative present unimportant compared to the drama of the future. I’m okay with it here because I don’t think the story relies on it too heavily. They only appear towards the end, and though they certainly change the way you read the conclusion, the final moment happens in the narrative present and offers its own brand of drama.
Unearthing this exchange in 2012 felt strangely like collapsing my own timeline, the same way that rereading “Safari” two years later did. I could see the way I read the story then and the way I read it now simultaneously. I still agree with my old assessment of “Safari” as an individual story and the way that time works in it, but I see now that my previous assessment has nothing to do with “Safari” or with time as either works in Goon Squad.
Goon Squad is a continuous narrative with no narrative present. To say it flashes forwards or backwards misses the mark; there is no singular reference point from which to flash forwards or backwards. Each story begins somewhere new, and each subsequent story is embedded in the details of those that have preceded it. The collective story of Egan’s ensemble cast isn’t plotted so much as it’s collaged, overlapping characters in setting and time so they hide and reveal each other in turn.
This is why “Great Rock and Roll Pauses” works so well: structurally, the power point slides may be truer to the project as a whole than most of the book’s more conventional stories. The form allows events to coincide physically suggesting a variety of relationships in time. Descriptions written inside four overlapping circles suggest simultaneous realizations. Observations embedded in concentric circles suggest a ripple of thought radiating out from an initial idea. Each layout offers a slice of time, inviting readers to explore it along multiple axes instead of a singular line.
The book has its missteps–“Selling the General” struck me as so tonally different from the rest of the work that I felt like I’d watched twenty minutes of “Bananas” in the middle of “Annie Hall”–but the cumulative effect of Goon Squad is stunning. When I finished, I felt as if I’d lived as many lives as there were characters. I started turning back through the pages immediately, like going through the pages of an old scrapbook looking for memories I might have missed but which, I was certain, were still there somewhere.
Similar Reads: Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell; The Known World, by Edward P. Jones; The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman.