A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Egan is a writer’s writer. By that, I do not mean that her books do not sell. What I do mean is that they should. Her prose snaps cleanly, like a carrot or Vlasic pickle. She wows with the delivery of, just when you need it, a nice insight or pleasingly verisimilitudinous scene. I made many notes, marked many passages. This novel/collection, no one can agree, presents the world as it is, only with the color saturation turned up and the contrast enhanced.

Everything was not perfect. I found the last chapter/story to be the weakest. Others strenuously disagree.

I have some support for my view. That final chapter is set in a future New York. There are helicopters swirling overhead, lots of police and “security agents” and people are absorbed in their “handsets”. These are all elements present in Super Sad True Love Story, though in Super Sad the “handsets” are “äppäräti” (score one Super Sad). Take this quote from Goon Squad:

An army of children: the incarnation of faith in those who weren’t aware of having any left.

if thr r childrn, thr mst b a fUtr, rt?

Well, Shteyngart’s characters have something to say about that in his alternate universe:

There’s more, isn’t there? There’s our legacy. We don’t die because our progeny lives on! The ritual passing of the DNA, Mama’s corkscrew curls, his granddaddy’s lower lip, ah buh-lieve thuh chil’ren ah our future. I’m quoting here from “The Greatest Love of All,” by 1980s pop diva Whitney Houston, track nine of her eponymous first LP.

Utter nonsense. The children are our future only in the most narrow, transitive sense.

My point, my only point with these comparisons, is that writers living in New York seem to have a very similar view of the future of New York. Full credit and highest kudos must go to the chapters that are more fully original rather than a re-working of post-2001 New York zeitgeist. For that, I would award full credit to the first chapter and the “Africa” chapter. They worked for me.

The first chapter is a glimpse into the life of Sasha, an assistant to the powerful music executive Bennie Salazar. She suffers from kleptomania and, while on a dinner-date with Alex, swiped a woman’s wallet. Alex is clueless as to Sasha’s involvement and, therefore, the woman’s behavior (after “finding” the wallet in the restroom where she lost it) seems bizarre to him. While he and Sasha are leaving the restaurant, Alex suggests that the woman hid her own wallet to garner attention. Sasha responds:

”She didn’t seem like that type.”

“You can’t tell. That’s something I’m learning, here in N.Y.C.: you have no fucking idea what people are really like. They’re not even two-faced – they’re, like, multiple personalities.”

“She wasn’t from New York,” Sasha said, irked by his obliviousness even as she strove to preserve it. “Remember? She was getting on a plane?”

“True,” Alex said. He paused and cocked his head, regarding Sasha across the ill-lit sidewalk. “But you know what I’m talking about? That thing about people?”

“I do know,” she said carefully. “But I think you get used to it.”

“I’d rather just go somewhere else.”

It took Sasha a moment to understand. “There is nowhere else,” she said.

The beauty of the scene is not just the humor of Alex’s obliviousness (which to fully appreciate you have to know all that went before), but the way it twins the opening quote of book, the quote by Proust. In A Visit From the Goon Squad, we get slices of characters as, in life, we get slices of people. To paraphrase Proust, the unknown elements in the lives of others are impossible to ever completely discover. This is true the world over and not, as Alex presumes, only in New York. The fact that Egan understands that is refreshing. New Yorkers tend to believe in New York’s exceptionalism. (For instance, not to bash Shteyngart or his characters, but the protagonist actually says: “I was proud of New York, now more than ever, for it had survived something another city would have not: its own rage.”)

But Egan’s work is the focus here. The idea that people are multi-faceted, reflecting a different light depending on perspective, is not entirely original. However, Egan executes the idea to near-perfection in A Visit From the Goon Squad. The glimpses we see feel like exactly the right ones. Summaries of a character’s life will be laid out as so many wares to demonstrate that Egan made the right choice given the other glimpses of other characters. These summaries simultaneously remind her readers that an important juncture in one character’s life is a minor episode, or at least not the most intense episode, in that of another.

Charlie doesn’t know herself. Four years from now, at eighteen, she’ll join a cult across the Mexican border whose charismatic leader promotes a diet of raw eggs; she’ll nearly die from salmonella poisoning before Lou rescues her. A cocaine habit will require partial reconstruction of her nose, changing her appearance, and a series of feckless, domineering men will leave her solitary in her late twenties, trying to broker peace between Rolph and Lou, who will have stopped speaking.

The flash forward provides context which deepens the moment, makes it richer. Egan’s management of these details and the piecing together of all the disparate lives into a coherent picture is, literally, awesome. While, occasionally, the methodology at least verges on the gimmicky (a second person chapter, the infamous power point chapter), Egan is a writer of extraordinary control over her subject matter. Her sentence by sentence construction is immaculate, even while her characters may occasionally make the sorts of statements that can be so cringe-inducing in Freedom:

”I don’t get it, Jules,” Stephanie said. “I don’t get what happened to you.”

Jules stared at the glittering skyline of Lower Manhattan without recognition. “I’m like America,” he said.

Stephanie swung around to look at him, unnerved. “What are you talking about?” she said. “Are you off your meds?”

“Our hands are dirty,” Jules said.

Her characters can be frustrating, but the writing never is. A simple moment involving a down and out character demonstrates that Egan remembers who her characters are, what little things have the clench of importance for them:

”Hey,” I heard behind me, two ragged voices. When I turned, they called out, “Thanks,” both at the same time.

It had been a long time since anyone had thanked me for something. “Thanks,” I said to myself. I said it again, wanting to hold in my mind the exact sound of their voices, to feel again the kick of surprise in my chest.

I was impressed. Egan will doubtless become a reliable author for me, someone I can look forward to without fear of disappointment.

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16 Responses to A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

  1. My god but that Shteyngart line is bad.

    “now more than ever”. Really? Could we get more cliched? Hopefully the cliche lies in the character and not the writing.

    “it had survived something another city would not have: it’s own rage.” I’m not even sure that means anything, but it betrays a staggering ignorance of, well, Earth. Again, I hope it’s clear the character’s a shallow-minded idiot.

  2. Oops, I pressed Post Comment accidentally there. Anyway, sorry to dwell on the Shteyngart line but there just seemed so much wrong in so little space.

    • Kerry says:

      I hate when that happens (premature postulation?). But, there is so much wrong in so little space.

      As to whether it is the character or the writing, the quote is from the main character’s diary which comprises the bulk of the novel. If it is Shteyngart mocking the character (and by extension those who mythologize New York), then it raises the issue of whether a writer has taken realism too far when he transcribes cliched thinking onto the page to maintain the plausibility of his character having thought/written the words. If that is the case, the project does not work anyway because the “diary entries” fit together too nicely as a story. In other words, a novel is not what you get when you read somebody’s diary from beginning to end, even if you only edit out things.

      This is all about Super Sad True Love Story which I will write about in full, anon.

      Thanks, Max, for commiserating with me on that quote. Your line (“[I]t betrays a staggering ignorance of, well, Earth.”) while phrased more cleverly than my thoughts, sets out what I was thinking when I read it.

      • I’ll look forward to that other writeup.

        One thing I’ve learned in my work by the way (which come to think of it is much the same as your work) is that building on what someone else said is vastly easier than saying something for the first time oneself. But thanks.

  3. Trevor says:

    I was impressed. Egan will doubtless become a reliable author for me, someone I can look forward to without fear of disappointment.

    I felt this way after Goon Squad, but sadly I was disappointed in The Keep. I am looking forward to following her career, though.

    And ugh to the Shteyngart.

  4. Kerry says:

    Perhaps there is some doubt. Thanks for the warning about The Keep. I’d read your review, then forgot about it.

  5. Trevor, Kerry: Sorry to divert the post, but are either of you contemplating trying the Tea Obreht? I haven’t seen as much Franzen-like hype for a first novel in a long time. Which, of course, has both positive and negative implications.

    • Kerry says:

      Kevin, I had not really been planning on taking it on anytime soon. I have some excellent Canadian fiction I am itching to read (thank you), some sci-fi, and some stuff already on my shelves. I will probably be well behind the curve if I ever get to it. I would love to hear your and/or Trevor’s thoughts though, as I trust both your opinions and would then know whether it was worth a go. After the ToB, I guess I am trying to stick with reliable authors/works/recommendations.

      • My schedule is also pretty full with new books eligible for the Booker or Giller. I might look at it in a few months — am mainly looking now for some guidance from a reader whom I trust.

  6. Trevor says:

    I have read a few pieces from Obrecht in The New Yorker. I really didn’t like the piece published in 2009 that was a piece of (or perhaps the inception of) her new novel. I didn’t mind her piece published in 2010, but it wasn’t enough for me to want to read her novel. Also, a few negative reviews I’ve read have confirmed my earlier opinion.

  7. Thanks, Trevor. I’ll pass for now.

  8. […] Review of Books; Teadevotee; London Review of Books; Just William’s Luck; The Reading Ape; Hungry Like the Woolf; Sandi at You’ve GOTTA Read This; NPR; TIME magazine (Top 10 fiction books of 2010); Dorothy […]

  9. Chrissy says:

    I loved the first chapter. I felt the book lacked a connection. There were too many points of views (3rd person, 1st person). It was like a guessing game on which character is next. It left me wanting much more. The writing is exceptional, but I wanted more of a story not just these snippets…the scene of Jules Jones in Central Park was horrible. I didn’t get the point of the footnotes…you lose a reader if you get so distracted.
    I would recommend it though. A lot to be discussed.

    • Kerry says:

      Chrissy,

      Thank you for your comment. I sort of like the gossamer connections, but that’s definitely a personal taste issue. I absolutely agree about the writing. The Jules Jones in Central Park section has only grown worse in my memory. If you haven’t watched the online powerpoint, I highly recommend it.

  10. june bloom says:

    i need 2 quotes from chapter 4 using an introductory phrase and a comma,”…”(jones 23).

    • Kerry says:

      I suggest you check out your library and/or Amazon’s look inside feature. I am not an English paper quotes on demand type blog. But thanks for the inquiry.

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