Saturday, March 31, 2012

"A Visit from the Goon Squad": Coming Full Circle

I picked a good week to read A Visit from the Goon Squad, which my mom gave me for Christmas. It felt appropriate to read the 2011 Morning News Tournament of Books winner as I eagerly followed the 2012 Tournament. Appropriate, to read a book centered around the music industry the week that I attended a concert, something that I don't do all that often. Appropriate, too, that I had it in my bag when I met Emma Straub, and then I read an interview with her where she mentioned it as one of her favorite books. Weirdly appropriate, that on the day I read one of the book's oddest and funniest chapters, the one about the self-loathing magazine journalist who is assigned to write a profile of a teenage starlet and ends up assaulting her in Central Park, I should read this Gawker article about the sexual politics of the celebrity profile, which covers many of the same themes.

And, I guess, most appropriately of all, that I started seeing weird connections to this book and its themes everywhere, when it, itself, is a book about weird connections and some of the world's biggest, most pervasive themes. Maybe every week is a good week to read A Visit from The Goon Squad!

This book has received a lot of awards and acclaim, so you probably already know about some of its distinctive features (is it a short story collection or a novel?; no two chapters have the same protagonist; the PowerPoint story). And I know I'm not going to be able to write a blog post that does justice to the book as a whole. So, herewith, some disjointed impressions, as a way of saying "I enjoyed this book and I'm still thinking about it."

The book covers a roughly fifty-year timespan -- the earliest story, "Safari," takes place in the early 1970s, and the last two stories take us into the near future of the 2020s. But the characters in every story feel equally real, human, and relatable. The stories that take place in the '70s don't feel like "historical fiction," and the stories that take place in the future don't feel like sci-fi, but a plausible extrapolation of how things might be in fifteen years or so. (Even if Jennifer Egan's predictions don't come true, her novel will still have value as a record of how people in 2010 envisioned the future would be.) I did find the references to Clinton's inauguration at the beginning of "Out of Body" a bit forced, an awkward way of letting the reader know that this story takes place in 1993. But then Egan does such wonderful things with the second-person-singular voice in the rest of the story, I am powerless to resist it.

While the major theme of the book is how the passage of time affects its characters, the emphasis is less on how they are affected by big historical events and more on how they are affected by new technological innovations and gradual shifts in cultural attitudes -- which feels more true to the way that people's lives actually change. The same goes for Egan's attitude about the future: it's not a utopia, it's not a dystopia, it's just a place where people will continue trying to make meaningful connections with one another, the way they have always done.

The way that minor characters in one story will become major characters in another, the way that time grinds them down, and the overall structure of the book (complex, circular, surprising) are heart-stoppingly good.

And I doubt that anyone will ever come up with a better metaphor for the conspicuous consumption of the early 2000s and the 2008 stock market crash than: "scalding oil [fell] onto the heads of every glamorous person in the country and some other countries, too. [...] Her guests shrieked and staggered and covered their heads, tore hot, soaked garments from their flesh and crawled over the floor like people in medieval altar paintings whose earthly luxuries have consigned them to hell."


Mead said...

Now that you've read this amazing novel (yes, that's what I'd call it), I hope you'll get round to all of Ms. Egan's extraordinary writing. We're only just starting to see what she can do -- I can't wait for the next opus.

Marissa Skudlarek said...

Yes, I am curious about her other books! Which one would you recommend that I read next? I was thinking I should check out "The Invisible Circus" because it's about young women and San Francisco -- two of my favorite themes.