Thursday, 24 March 2011

'the right amount of crazy'

A Visit From The Goon Squad 
by Jennifer Egan

This book was highly praised by Trevor over at The Mookse and The Gripes and chosen by him as one of his books of last year, so it was with not a little impatience that I waited for it to arrive on these shores (which it does this month thanks to Corsair). It turns out that Trevor wasn't alone in his admiration for this novel, the press release comes laden with fantastic quotes from just about every American newspaper you'd care to mention and plenty of others picking it as one of their books of the year. That's quite a weight of expectation, and indeed a couple of respected bloggers have recently voiced their disappointment with it, but that came after I had already read and enjoyed one of the more original and entertaining books of recent memory.

The novel has an interesting structure coming as several interlinked stories rather than a single narrative, characters from one appearing in another and the reader moving forwards and backwards in time from the late sixties up to the near future of 2020. 'Time's a goon,' one character says and the free-wheeling shifts from one section to the next I can only compare to what it must feel like to be Doctor Who's companion; you suddenly find yourself in a new place and time but something or someone will be vaguely familiar, the first few pages an acclimatisation before the rest provide some kind of revelation. I am going to refer to it as a novel because whilst you could read the stories separately there is so much more to be gained from reading the book as a whole. In such a fractured novel it is hard to pick a central protagonist, the book's blurb names Bennie Salazar, ageing music mogul, as the man for that position, although it is his PA Sasha who opens the book. She suffers from kleptomania and in the opening story/section we find her trying to resist the urge to lift the purse from an unattended handbag in a toilet. The fact that she is doing this whilst out on a date will give you an indication of the seriousness of her condition - this is not just an opportunistic hobby. The scene that follows as her date becomes involved in trying to help this woman retrieve her stolen goods is excruciating (and funny) but suddenly becomes poignant when he goes back to Sasha's apartment and comes across her collection of stolen items. Most of these are trivial items and one photo causes passing mention to be made of a friend of hers who drowned. That story will be picked up and fleshed out later and this is one of the fascinating things about this book. Some seemingly inconsequential characters or moments suddenly assume a much larger significance later when they are given their moment. Others are more immediately satisfying like the note that she finds in her date's wallet, presumably given to him some time ago, on which is written 'I BELIEVE IN YOU', and of course you know that she has to have it.

Even with all that going on the story isn't content to leave things there, the narrative switches effortlessly from the events of that evening to the retelling of them by Sasha to her therapist Coz. This is done effortlessly and simply sheds an entirely new perspective on the behaviour on display in the story as well as placing Sasha in a slightly wider context. Egan has several different ways of performing these  lightning fast switches in narrative technique, one other favourite is to suddenly cast forward into the future and let us now what lies in store for a particular character, something that allows us to see what seeds are being sown by their current actions or the dramatic irony that will be achieved in their later life.

It is in the next chapter that we meet Bennie, trying at the age of 44 to arrest the slide clearly happening in his life, divorced from wife Stephanie with whom he has battled over their son Christopher and struggling to retain his musical intuition, his desperation summed up in the red-enamelled box from which he takes a pinch of gold flakes to add to his coffee (having read somewhere that the combination in Aztec medicine was reputed to ensure sexual potency). Throughout the book we will pick up with him at different stages of his life, at the height of success amongst the big houses and Republicans, back into his youth as part of a group of punk rockers in San Francisco. The effect of these shifts is that the same character can be viewed both sympathetically and unsympathetically within a few pages. Another record company executive, Lou, appears first to us as an exploiter of young girls before another chapter shows him in a much warmer light on safari with his family. Even the most peripheral of characters can suddenly be shown in a new light when their story comes to the fore later on.

Throughout the book Egan produces several examples of character description so concise and barbed it's a bit like seeing the butterfly collector put the pin through his latest acquisition. Sometimes personal ('Lou is one of those men whose restless charm has generated a contrail of personal upheaval that is practically visible behind him'), other times political ('Kathy was a Republican, one of those people who used the unforgivable phrase "meant to be" - usually when describing her own good fortune or the disasters that had befallen other people.') Egan even uses the recent release of Stephanie's brother Jules from prison (the reason for which we will come to shortly) to take a satirical swipe at post 9/11 America.

"I go away for a few years and the whole fucking world is upside down," Jules said angrily. "Buildings are missing. You get strip-searched every time you go to someone's office. Everybody sounds stoned, because they're e-mailing people the whole time they're talking to you. Tom and Nicole are with different people...And now my rock and roll sister and her husband are hanging around with Republicans. What the fuck!"

Jules' incarceration came after he assaulted an actress he was interviewing for a magazine. This article is reproduced in the book to hilarious effect where he states that he hopes it will prove to be as revelatory as his other pieces on 'hunting elk with Leonardo DiCaprio, reading Homer with Sharon Stone and digging for clams with Jeremy Irons'. It is one of the book's sections that makes it worth the price of admission and possibly because one of Egan's great strengths is the satire of modern culture. One extraordinary strand of the novel has this in spades as we follow the rise and fall of Dolly (or LA Doll as she was known professionally), a PR guru who in her later life is becoming a specialist at image makeovers for military dictators. Her spectacular fall from grace came at a party she organised, something to rival Capote's famous Black and White Ball, with all the biggest names attending. Dolly's moment of hubris came when she saw herself as a designer as well host, suspending large perspex trays of oil and water from the ceiling on chains, lit by spotlights that caused the oil to swirl about and project patterns across the walls. Her miscalculations about 'the melting temperature of plastic and the proper distribution of weight-bearing chains' resulted in a horrific scene of boiling oil pouring on her assembled guests

They were burned, scarred, maimed in the sense that tear-shaped droplets of scar tissue on the forehead of a movie star or small bald patches on the head of an art dealer or a model or generally fabulous person constitute maiming.

(Suddenly those 'tender, circular burns' on Bennie's forearm back on page 17 make sense) A law suit that wiped out her savings and six months in jail for criminal negligence were one thing but the altered state in which she emerged from her incarceration - 'thirty pounds heavier and fifty years older, with wild grey hair' meant that crucially no-one recognised her and she effectively disappeared. That might be enough but the extraordinary volt face occurs later, when she hires an actress (and given the way in which things tend to tie together in this novel it is of course the actress interviewed by Jules earlier) to pose as the girlfriend of the military dictator of an African state in order to soften his image, and she notices burn marks on her arms.

"I made them myself," Kitty said.
Dolly stared at her, uncomprehending. Kitty grinned, and for a second she looked sweetly mischievous, like the star of Oh, Baby, Oh. "Lots of people have," she said. "You didn't know?"
Dolly wondered if this might be a joke. She didn't want to fall for it in front of Lulu.
"You can't find a person who wasn't at that party," Kitty said. "And they've got proof. We've all got proof - who's going to say we're lying?"
"I know who was there," Dolly said. "I've still got the list in my head."
"But . . . who are you?" Kitty said, still smiling

The distances between the stories in this novel and the means by which those distances are closed are no less mechanical (or perhaps at times even deus-ex-mechanical) than time travel itself. There is no doubt that some readers will find this book annoying, some because of structure, some because of content. Personally, I enjoyed the ride and loved those moments where a connection would suddenly spark. Is a chapter written as a Powerpoint presentation just a gimmick or a genuine innovation? Well, it worked for me but I'm not sure I want to see it repeated. Just about every time Egan gets away with it, even when moving into the future (a notoriously slippy place for the non-genre novelist) which she presents with small believable developments from the prevalence of 'handhelds' (as I edit this on my own phone) to the fallout of the 'Bloggescandals' where enthusiastic, word-of-mouth success had been shown to be nothing more than corporate-sponsored advertising using bloggers as 'parrots' (erm...). You have to take a few risks when trying something new and Egan certainly does that. How well she succeeds may be down to personal taste but her intelligence, humour and compassion made for a read that sparkled for this reader like the flakes of gold Bennie Salazar dropped into his coffee.


winstonsdad 24 March 2011 at 22:17  

Keep hearing this mention ,know it was on us critics award list ,not sure if is one I ll be reading as trying to focus more on translation as read few us and English books just recently but will bear it in mind if I do fancy a us fix with a twist thjis seems to have a slight surrealness about it ,all the best stu

William Rycroft 25 March 2011 at 08:42  

Yes, there's been a lot of buzz around this one Stu so if you do fancy a break from your fine diet of translated fiction do bear it in mind. It's very enjoyable, inventive and interesting about modern culture.

Trevor 25 March 2011 at 16:08  

Glad you liked this, Will. I'm not convinced yet that it isn't brilliant!

William Rycroft 25 March 2011 at 22:35  

I almost certainly wouldn't have read it if it wasnt for you Trevor so thank you again for your enthusiasm.

Jonathan Gibbs 20 April 2011 at 11:42  

Tried to leave this comment yesterday from my phone but lost it. Darn. No doubt it will come out better, more thoughtful, this time around... or perhaps not.

So ‘Goon Squad’ has won the Pulitzer now, as well as the Critics Circle Award, and I'm sitting here thinking, what is it about the book that rankles, that makes me so annoyed with it? And this despite the fact that, as you rightly say, William, it’s brilliant and entertaining and features some wonderfully sharp writing.

Well, first up, as I’ve said elsewhere, I hate the fact that, for all its fractured surface, so many of the chapters connect in so many minor ways. And, specifically, Egan’s seemingly obsessive need to bring minor characters back in, against all rules of human probability, where there’s no need to. I’m thinking of Lulu and Joe, and Alex, all turning up again in the final chapter. Lulu’s character is essential to the plot, but would it have harmed the novel to have her called Lucy? It reminds me of those awful ensemble films in which big Hollywood stars get to show how humble they are by taking smaller than usual roles (yes, ‘Crash’, I’m talking about you, and ‘Magnolia’ and all those other ones) and the filmmakers send us home with the wonderful feeling that we’re all connected and if only we could all get along!

I said in my Indy review that this aspect of the book reminded me of Don DeLillo’s ‘Underworld’, which also has a fragmented structure, and also jumps around in time, but which doesn’t insist on every strand tying right back into the central nexus of the narrative. You know that cliché, ‘It’s a small world , but I wouldn’t like to paint it’ – well, the world of ‘Goon Squad’ is most definitely small enough to paint. It’s a world in miniature.

Also, though perhaps it’s the same point: that fractured surface, which so many reviews have praised… well, the problem with it, for me, is that it doesn’t fit with the philosophical view of the world implied by the novel, in which, underneath all these splintered scenes and massive temporal gaps in the characters’ stories, they all behave and are treated like characters in a straightforward realist novel. They all have novelistic narrative arcs, they are all given ‘closure’, nobody is left spinning off into the void, nobody left dangling. Seen like this – and it’s just my perspective, obviously – that fractured surface looks like an affectation, a postmodern tease to tickle the reader’s fancy. Under the gimmickry, this is as traditional a novel as the Franzen. And Franzen, for me, manages to be more insightful about music, and the way we use it in our lives, and how it uses us.

William Rycroft 21 April 2011 at 09:32  

As I said yesterday on Twitter (wow, even our comment exchanges are fractured and 'tech') thank you for such a considered comment which I actually find it very hard to argue against. Your comparison with films like Crash and Magnolia seems very apt, although I would say that personally I couldn't abide Crash whereas I may be one of the few people to watch the 14 hours of Magnolia twice (I can't remember the exact running time but it's something like that, isn't it?!). Whether it would stand up to another viewing I somehow doubt. That's often the problem with these books/films/albums that seem very modern or innovative, they actually turn out to just be filled with quirks that become annoying after a while. Very few really stand the test of time.

A lot of claims have been made on behalf of Goon Squad but I'm not sure exactly who's making them. Is it Egan herself, her publisher, or reviewers and critics? It seems a bit unfair if Egan is being criticised for not having written the revolutionary book she's never claimed to have written. I think you're bang on about the fragmentary nature of the book being something added on, it's like those paint kits that can add a crackleur effect but it did tickle my interest as I read and I enjoyed being pinballed around the place. There were too many connections, it didn't need to be tied up so neatly (how much braver as you say to let some of them spin off into the void) but I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy a few of those moments when I realised how a character had returned, transformed. I guess in the end those chapters like the celebrity interview and the Powerpoint presentation are really just exercises in style.

Will Goon Squad go down as a classic? I doubt it (although it has certainly annoyed enough people to eventually achieve that status). Do Powerpoint chapters mark a genuine innovation? Nope. Does this still remain one of the more enjoyable reads of the year. Yep. Going back to Magnolia; it's bloated, quirky in the worst sense of the word and hugely indulgent but if I came home at midnight and it was on I'd find it hard not to give it another go. (Tom Cruise has never given a better performance - and I kind of love Julianne Moore).

Yvann 11 September 2011 at 12:11  

I found this one really tough going and in the end simply didn't get what everyone else has been raving about. Yes it's revolutionary (debatable, but it's certainly unusual both in construct and in formatting), but I found the characters so unsympathetic, self-involved and generally unpleasant that I simply wasn't drawn into the magic of this book. Glad to see that it "did it" for other readers!

William Rycroft 13 September 2011 at 00:07  

Thanks for the comment Yvann. What I actually enjoyed about this book was that unsympathetic characters could suddenly become more rounded and, well...sympathetic, when we zoomed to another part of their history. It's an odd book though, definitely not for everyone and the huge amount of praise heaped on it can have a negative effect on readers coming to the book after reading all that I think.

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