Monday, September 12, 2011

A visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Does the novel exist as a cultural imperative in the 21st century? I would have said "no" - that it is purely a commodity and/or an artefact.

Imagine: reading "Ulysses", "1984", "Catcher in the Rye", "American Psycho" for the first time - with or without context.

It is late to the party to be giving the same kind of imperative to a novel which has already won the Pullitzer, but having read Jennifer Egan's "A visit from the goon squad", I could just scratch my chin and say "another novel" or could actually say that this is something more than special.

Anyone who is aware of American literature over the last 25 years should be aware that the Roth/Updike/Bellow/DeLillo great American Novel is not only a chimera but increasingly futile. American Pastoral, Rabbit Redux, Augie Marsh, White Noise happened at hapzard points in their careers - there is no peak, no trough, just an "is", they could, they did; and they are all men.

We can analyse that all we like but its an irrelevancy, because every generation creates its own macabre, its own serendipity, its own orthodoxy.

What is so amazing about Egan's "A visit from the Goon Squad" is that it cuts through all that, whilst being highly aware of where it's coming from. There seem, to be at least, two clear antecedents, Brett Easton Ellis's imperiously brilliant "The Informers" and David Mitchell's wonderful debut "Ghostwritten." Whether or not Egan has read these books, she takes from the first its fragmented stories, and from the second its sense of connection.

Fragments and connection weave through "A Visit from the Goon Squad." Its ostensibly a story about music industry types in the 80s, but weaves back and forward (again like David Mitchell) from the 60s to the 2020s(the future!) Whereas Micheal Cunnigham's excellent "Specimen Days" signals this, Egan's brilliant novel refuses to signal. This is a road trip without signs, and that is far harder than it should be. Yet, remarkably, she takes us with her, even as characters and perspecitves change. It would be so awful to call this a portmanteau novel, even though it is, because the weave is so fantastically achieved. Rather, I would say that Egan has "balance", because this, more than pretty much any contemporary novel I could mention, is a beautifully balanced novel. Conceits have a tendency to topple over; Egan's only topple to somersault again.

Does any of that make any sense? Here's the proper review: a group of 80s wannabes/casualties work out their life/come good/fuck up.

I can't write a proper review of this. The brilliant Sarah Churchwell has done that already - read that.

OK - you've done that. "We're the survivors" the central character Sasha says. I don't think I've read another contemporary novel that has been so aware of our frailty, our fragility.

"A Visit from the Goon Squad" is the novel that we should all be reading, all be writing, and it puts into the shade every other British or American novel over the last few years. It goes beyond the casualness of Eggars, whilst willing to embrace the whole McSweeney's footnote culture (but it does it better: it has a whole chapter that is a POWERPOINT PRESENTATION.)

I finished this novel and wanted to start it again - but I had to go and make a bonfire of this year's Booker prize shortlist first. It's that good. It transforms. It makes. It reduces.

Better than that it "questions." Whereas you can read most American novels and go "Who are these people?" after the usual consummate ironicness, something kicks in with "A visit from the Goon Squad" that stripped this reader of his cynicism. I've never met the people here, but I care about them alot more than the characters in A.M. Home's brilliant "This book can change your life." The not-caring was part of the action there.

The novel isn't perfect, (after all, which novel is?), there are a couple of emotional loose ends that don't quite add up. These are mine, maybe not yours, I want to read this novel again - immediately - from the start - and that's unhead of. There's a great Tom Petty song, Even the Losers, or there's the film "Dazed and Confused", or there's friends of mine who are not here any more....

And there's chapter 10, the second person (my favourite person, if it comes down to ranking them) "Out of Body" where a character lives and dies in Sasha's peripherary for purely a chapter, but may well be the best piece of American (or anywhere) fiction written in the first 11 years of this compromised century.

This is not a review, this is a homage.


Flat Out said...

but the last chapter? you have to admit it's pretty terrible...

Adrian Slatcher said...

Theres a whole essay to be written on non SF writers writing of SF. I felt it was a misstep as I read it, a change of pace and style that threw me a bit, but did bring together some crucial bits of the novel. Coming at the chronological and actual end of the novel may well have exposed it a little....