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I was out driving recently with nothing much to fill my mind but the traffic and it occurred to me that the whole traffic flow depends on people conforming and following rules. If one person jumps a red light then the entire system can come crashing down, sometimes with catastrophic results.
Conforming seems to be something we are programmed to do, and there seem to be strict rules and demarcations laid out about how things should be. We can fight against much of this of course, but the one thing none of us can fight against is time.
Time and conforming are probably the best two words I can think of when describing A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. The book ponders time and how it affects us but does so in a very different way to how one would expect a novel to be constructed.
Jennifer Egan was born in Chicago in 1962 and has worked as a writer for most of her adult life. She didn't find success on a large scale until she published The Keep in 2006.
A Visit From the Goon Squad was published in 2010 to great acclaim and the novel is currently being developed by HBO as a TV mini series.
Egan clearly has been inspired by many different experiences in her life but her biggest inspiration for A Visit From the Goon Squad was TV show The Sopranos, with Egan explaining "I don't watch much television, but I got really caught up in that. And I did consciously ask the question of whether there would be a way to write a novel that would have the same kind of lateral feeling of a television series - the same kind of sense of movement in all directions, but not necessarily forward. The movement from central to peripheral characters from season to season, or even within a season."
Egan has written a book which is loosely constructed around the lives of former punk rocker and record company founder Bennie Salazar, his sometime assistant Sasha and the people that touch their lives over the years.
It would be pointless to explain the plot here because the structure of the book is like nothing I have ever encountered before. Over the course of thirteen chapters Egan takes us on a journey to the past, the present and the future, transporting the reader from New York City to San Francisco, to Africa and to Italy. What the book doesn't do is tell the story in chronological order so the story begins in the not too distant past in a New York City with kleptomaniac Sasha discussing her issues with her therapist and recalling a recent night out where she felt compelled to steal whilst on a date.
Once you finish this chapter you could be forgiven for wondering what the next chapter has to connect it to the first and frankly the only answer I could give you is Sasha's connection through work to Bennie, the record company mogul.
Some of the chapters in A Visit From the Goon Squad were published as short stories in the past so some people have described the book as less of a novel and more of a short story collection but when you consider the main theme which seems to be that time stops for no man - then it makes complete sense as a novel.
I must be honest and say I have never read a book like A Visit From the Goon Squad before. I have read novels which are constructed in a manner which strays from the norm in structural narrative but nothing quite like in Egan's novel.
At first I did find things a little confusing due to the way in which you effectively time travel through the lives of the central characters, but somehow everything fits together absolutely perfectly in spite of this. So don't be surprised if you have to go back a few pages to remind yourself of how someone fits into the story - I found myself doing it a few times.
It's not only the narrative structure which doesn't conform with what you would expect in a book however. Egan also uses very different writing styles in various chapters, veering from first person to third person with ease but also including a chapter which is written by one character as he interviews another. The strangest chapter comprises entirely of Powerpoint presentations, used very effectively by Egan to explain an autistic boy's obsessions and his father's struggles to understand them.
This obviously struck a chord with me, having a daughter who has autism and obsesses over music if not the same way as the boy in the book does certainly with as much attention to the details as him. But the way Egan relates the boy's obsessions using the Powerpoint slides as a device to explain via his sister how the autism affects the entire family is quite simply genius.
Egan is a quite wonderful writer and her ability to tell the stories of so many people in such different styles so well is a testament to her writing skills. She describes New York City in colourful and evocative language, and creates characters who you may not like but you will believe in. Her prose is wonderful throughout but in the chapter set in Naples her description of the Orpheus and Eurydice and how seeing the famed marble relief acts almost as an epiphany for one of the characters it is masterful. Reading this section I was transfixed, spellbound by Egan's ability to capture the feelings of another person and how the mythical story of two lovers can still captivate thousands of years after it was first told.
Orpheus lost Eurydice forever because he looked back at her before they had fully departed the underworld and there is a sense Egan conveys in A Visit From the Goon Squad that looking back can be both dangerous and depressing. Fading rocker Bosco expresses this explicitly when he says "This is reality, right? You don't look good anymore twenty years later, especially when you've had half your guts removed. Time's a goon, right? Isn't that the expression?".
In an industry which worships youth and the next big thing, time is the biggest goon of all for almost every character, with no amount of botox or liposuction able to stop the goon from visiting you. Young people of course never think old age, or even middle age, will happen to them and Egan shows that youth is but a fleeting part of life. Death features too, conveyed in different ways as Egan relates losses endured by people and how those losses can affect you years later.
I've read a few exceptionally good books this year but A Visit From the Goon Squad is my favourite because it's a book which takes an accepted form and turns it on its head. It features many characters in different walks of life and intertwines them as it jumps from time to place but seamlessly keeps your attention and wills you to turn the page. Egan is able to convincingly write about things that will make you want to cry, and also about things that will make you want to laugh quite literally out loud.
Egan has written a book that essentially takes the narrative out of the box, and as such makes the reader feel the same way. That's an incredible achievement in my opinion and makes for a brilliant novel.