A Visit From the Goon Squad

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer EganFull Title: A Visit From the Goon Squad: A Novel
Jennifer Egan
Publisher: Vintage/Anchor Books (2011)
Number of Pages: 352
How long it took me to read: 1 week, 1 day
Where I bought this book: A friend of mine, who is also in my writers group, had lent me her copy, which she hadn’t had time to read. After a month of the book sitting by my bedside unread, I purchased my own copy during the last days of Borders Books. That way, it could sit among the stack of books I intend to read some day, without that gnawing feeling that the book was overdue to its rightful owner.
ISBN: 978-0307477477

Like a Moth to a Flame

Last year, the writers group that I belong to decided to attend a City Arts and Lectures interview with Jennifer Egan. None of us had yet read her new collection of linked short stories. It was after hearing her discuss her writing process and her approach to craft (such as on narrative voice and sense of place) that I became interested in reading her new Pulitzer Prize winning book.

Favorite Five

I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:

5. “Stephanie started to laugh. The idea struck her as inexplicably funny. But Bosco was abruptly serious. ‘I’m done,’ he said. ‘I’m old, I’m sad—that’s on a good day. I want out of this mess. But I don’t want to fade away, I want to flame away—I want my death to be an attraction, a spectacle, a mystery. A work of art. Now, Lady PR,’ he said, gathering up his drooping flesh and leaning toward her, eyes glittering in his overblown head, ‘you try to tell me no one’s going to be interested in that. Reality TV, hell—it doesn’t get any realer than this. Suicide is a weapon; that we all know. But what about an art?’” (p.129)

4. “Instead, I thought of Alice. This was something I almost never let myself do—just think of her, as opposed to think about not thinking about her, which I did almost constantly. The thought of Alice broke open in me, and I let it fan out until I saw her hair in the sun—gold, her hair was gold—and I smelled those oils she used to dab on her wrists with a dropper. Patchouli? Musk? I couldn’t remember the names. I saw her face with all the love still in it, no anger, no fear—none of the sorry things I learned to make her feel. Come inside, her face said, and I did. For a minute, I came inside.” (p.103)

3. “At the top of the stairs the jungle had been cleared away to accommodate a slab of concrete that might have been a landing pad. Sunlight pushed down through the humid jungle air, making wisps of steam at their feet. The general stood in the middle of the concrete, flanked by soldiers. He looked short, but that was always true of famous people. He wasn’t wearing the blue hat, or any hat, and his thick hair stood up oddly around his grim triangular face. He wore his usual military regalia, but something about it all seemed slightly askew, or in need of cleaning.” (p.157)

2. “Bennie played some early Who, the Stooges, bands he’d listened to before he was even old enough to go to a concert. Then he got into Flipper, the Mutants, Eye Protection—seventies Bay Area groups he and his gang had slam-danced to at the Mabuhay Gardens when they weren’t practicing with their own unlistenable band, the Flaming Dildos. He sensed Sasha paying attention and toyed with the idea that he was confessing to her his disillusionment—his hatred for the industry he’d given his life to. He began weighting each musical choice, drawing out his argument through the songs themselves—Patti Smith’s ragged poetry (but why did she quit?), the jock hardcore of Black Flag and the Circle Jerks giving way to alternative, that great compromise, down, down, down to the singles he’d just today been petitioning radio stations to add, husks of music, lifeless and cold as the squares of office neon cutting the blue twilight.” (p.36)

…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…

1. “As Ted sat, feeling the evolution of the afternoon, he found himself thinking of Susan. Not the slightly different version of Susan, but Susan herself—his wife—on a day many years ago, before Ted had begun folding up his desire into the tiny shape it had become. On a trip to New York, riding the Staten Island Ferry for fun, because neither one of them had ever done it, Susan turned to him suddenly and said, ‘Let’s make sure it’s always like this.” And so entwined were their thoughts at that point that Ted knew exactly why she’d said it: not because they’d made love that morning or drunk a bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé at lunch—because she’d felt the passage of time. And then Ted felt it, too, in the leaping brown water, the scudding boats and wind—motion, chaos everywhere—and he’d held Susan’s hand and said, ‘Always. It will always be like this.’” (p.231)


Conversation with the Reader

While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:

“I get a giddy thrill when Mabuhay Gardens gets mentioned in the book. It brings back memories of a much younger me dragging a friend there before it closed to listen to music I was hearing on college radio. She didn’t know what she was in for. I didn’t either. That was a different San Francisco then. Pre-earthquake and pre-revitalization. More grit and less glitter. The hippies were long gone, although the addicts remained. Music was still on vinyl, and streaming music was stuff of science fiction. And at that time, a new kind of music was emerging. Some bands brilliantly discordant and moving; others terrible and unlistenable. It wasn’t pop or rock or anything I’d ever heard on commercial radio. It hadn’t yet been defined or boiled down into a corporate formula. The music was exciting, emotionally raw and fearless, and could only be heard live at a few open-minded venues, like the Mab.”

“In my writers group, we discussed what we are reading. I admitted that I’m finally reading this book. One of the writers who had read the book told me, ‘It’ll change your life.’ Of course he was joking. Or so I thought. Each story so far has its own unique narrative voice. Egan plays with tone, diction, style, etc. She has such a sense of balance in her language and pacing. In ‘Ask Me If I Care,’ there is beauty and ugliness at the same time. Her characters are scary-real. It’s as if you can feel them breaking and bleeding in front of you, and there’s nothing you can do except to keep on reading. And then you realize this was Egan’s aim all along: for the reader to feel the same impotent horror the central character is experiencing.”

“A story like ‘Safari’ may be a story that only literary nerds like me can appreciate. It is brilliant, I have to say. It is truly an exploration of the omniscient 3rd person point of view. I had to read the first few sections a couple of times to keep the characters straight. There are so many shifts in the perspectives. The narrative voice starts out with a distance akin to a scientific paper, which coincides with Mindy, a character who is an anthropology grad student at UC Berkeley. Then the perspective shifts, and we are seeing the scene from another character’s point of view. Egan does this throughout the story, reminding me of a snake moving through brush and grass, each brush or clump of grass being a different character. There is so much that she does in the narrative that is mimetic of the anthropology theme: the observances of complicated adult relationships, the misunderstandings or assumptions children make when witnessing these complications. Then there is the pivotal moment in the story. I won’t say much more than it involves a lioness (who is the innocent one in all of it). That particular scene stayed with me, like that leftover sting of a mosquito. While I was smarting, I had to concede the necessity of that difficult scene. It was perhaps the most honest moment for these characters.

“Egan continually turns the short story on its head. Usually the short story form covers a specific moment in the central characters’ lives, usually focusing on a limited range of themes, as opposed to a novel which can span an entire lifetime and explores any number of themes. Most of the time, in short story, you get the impression that for these characters, after the story ends, their lives continue, but we are left to imagine their futures. In ‘Safari,’ it’s not enough to tell us that they will remember the trip for the rest of their lives. Egan gives us these strange but delicious tidbits of projection into their future. As a fiction writer, I can barely handle moving my own narratives back in time, but Egan moves up and down the time scale with ease and finesse. She lets the reader see the full arc of these characters’ lives in short bursts of paragraphs with almost breathless speed, rhythm and lyricism. We see not just the past and the present but the future of these characters, giving us a much different, more layered reading experience.”

“This story collection reminds me of a music album, which may be because these characters inhabit the music world. Each story is like a song in an album which is a separate, standalone work of art, with its own theme or message. Put them all together, and the cumulative reading creates a larger body of art and suddenly, like a music album, the book is imbued with layered themes and deeper meaning.”

“‘Selling the General’ was funny and absurd until it became deadly and well, still absurd. I kept imagining Lindsay Lohan as Kitty Jackson, a minor and yet essential character. Not that the character’s life resembles Lohan’s, but somehow, that’s the face in my imagination, which seems to embody that sudden rise and fall of a young star. This story is actually the most hopeful of the collection I’ve read so far.”

“‘Out of Body’ is my least favorite of Egan’s stories, and I have only three left to go. This one was a little too ‘device-driven’ and less emotionally satisfying than the others. I couldn’t sympathize with the central character and only barely related to the minor characters, which is too bad because I happen to like 2nd person point of view. Some of my favorite stories are written in this point of view. I like the odd yet intimate feeling when the narrator addresses ‘you’ in the story. In this case, rather than bringing me closer to the character, its use mostly annoyed me and often took me out of the story.

“Using 2nd person is always a risk, and Egan is certainly not averse to risk in her writing. And that’s as it should be. I think the best writers are fearless and willing to take the leap that no one else is willing to take. I’m all for using experimental strategies in fiction, but 2nd person has to make artistic sense for my writer’s sensibilities. In other words, evoking that ‘you’ should tell the story better. 2nd person short stories like ‘Forever Overhead’ by David Foster Wallace, ‘How to Become a Writer’ by Lorrie Moore, ‘Leopard’ by Wells Tower come to mind. I can’t fathom those stories having the same impression if they’d been written in other than 2nd person. But with ‘Out of Body,’ I can imagine it better told in the 1st or 3rd person.”

“Egan redeems herself with the next two stories, of which one is a PowerPoint presentation that is nothing short of genius. How did she do it? How did Egan create a graphical representation of a short story that is just as poignant and satisfying as her other more ‘traditional’ stories? I’m in awe once again. As soon as I can pick my jaw off the floor, I’ll start on the very last story, except I almost don’t want to because once I’m finished reading it, the world of the Goon Squad will be over.”

“When I first began to read Egan’s stories, in the back of my mind, I was thinking there should be a special disclaimer to writers, like on television: ‘Don’t try this at home kids.’ But the more I read, the more it felt like Egan was daring or challenging writers to absolutely try it, and any of the other crazy stuff you know will cause debate in your next workshop. Screw the rules, or didn’t you get the memo? There aren’t any actual rules in fiction writing, only the illusion that you need them to tell your story. Then there’s Egan, who writes a damn good story whether she’s complying with the rules or inventing new ones.”

Lisa Abellera

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