Monday, June 13, 2011

Visiting with Egan's "Goon Squad"

Winning an award for your work is inevitably an honor and for some readers the mark of the Pulitzer Prize is a compelling emblem; for others it is intimidating. This year’s winner is a laudable accomplishment as well as a comprehensible and engaging read. In fact the most elusive feature of Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit from the Goon Squad” is the title.

The first chapter, and first story, introduces us to Sasha. She is a thirty-something single woman in New York, discussing her most recent setback with her shrink. The scene is typical so far. Sasha, it turns out, is a kleptomaniac and her fervid encounter with an online date concludes in forgettable sex and a poignant theft.

Sasha's story introduces a few of the characters who appear in the successive stories. Egan cleverly extracts minor figures from early stories and fleshes out their worlds as the book proceeds. For a time, the reader is traveling backward in time, retracing history, but ultimately we arrive somewhere in the future. While Sasha’s presence is a fundamental thread in the book, she never entirely reclaims the narrative as her own. The reader pieces her life together through the eyes of her contemporaries and acquaintances, and we learn almost as much about them along the way. It is fair to say that the story is no more hers than it is any of theirs.

“Goon Squad” follows its population of protagonists to Naples, Africa, and the suburbs, but it always returns to New York. The city harbors the wounded and spits out the derelict. It is a place where gifted musicians become riverside fishermen, PR magnates light their guests on fire, people find their callings, and others find themselves selling their foundering souls. By reconnecting with Egan’s characters in different stages of their lives, we become acquainted with a panorama of their choices. Throughout the book their mistakes and triumphs come into focus and give them a very human identity. An aging producer who seduces young girls is also a father and a mentor while an American sweetheart actress morphs into a political rebel. Egan’s characters are unfailingly complex, and like most people, they continue to surprise us.

In addition to the creative tool of intersecting but not continuous or chronological storylines, Egan uses a variety of methods to tell her story. A troubled college student speaks about himself entirely in the second person, until he reaches a mental climax and collapse. A young girl illustrates the fluctuating complications of her family via power point, and a few conversations are had entirely via abbreviated Ts, a form of texting reduced further than our own. These methods reflect both time and states of mind.

Egan’s characters' narratives come together like puzzle pieces. It is a sly approach and one that Egan executes with grace. It is somewhat disappointing, however, not to acquire a full view of any one of her characters. This is partly a compliment to Egan's craftsmanship as a writer that we want to intimately understand everyone she creates. But the sliver we are given, no matter how substantial, is never enough. Arguably our chagrin at remaining on the fringes of these realities should be swallowed in homage to artistic license. Egan is, perhaps, using these slices to paint a larger picture. I resented the deprivation nonetheless. “A Visit from the Goon Squad” is a novel in short stories. I am a fan of both genres and Egan’s book is a well-developed delight, but I couldn’t help wishing I’d had one or the other because both didn’t give me enough of either.