Thursday, November 10, 2011

Time's a Goon

This past April, Jennifer Egan was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for her fourth novel, A Visit from the Goon SquadIt’d be easy to fill this post by rattling off the accolades the book garnered (National Book Critics Circle Award, PEN/Faulkner finalist, Best of 2010 list in every newspaper and magazine), but actually describing the story is a bit of a challenge. It’s a nonlinear narrative with clear contempt for the forward march of chronological order.  It hops between times and narrators at each successive chapter.  The characters themselves are loosely connected to one another, in the Kevin Bacon sense of connected, their commonality being a close proximity to rock-and-roll. The story is a knotted acknowledgment of the consequence of time and place.  Or if that wasn’t abstruse enough for you – maybe think of it like a guitar shaped piece of origami, each character and timeframe folded and overlapping, with the two main characters, Bennie, a former punk rocker turned record exec, and his assistant, Sasha, a former prostitute and lifelong klepto, as the first bisecting folds.

When the book came out, there was some discussion about if it should be classified as a novel or collection of short stories.  Each chapter stands on its own, creating a dramatic arc that unfolds in a disjointed way.  The only real issue with this technique is that the writing is so well crafted that it’s tough not to get engaged with any one character or storyline - and once their chapter is up, they may not return in any substantive way.  Like my favorite chapter was from the perspective of a fallen-from-grace publicist who was rebuilding her career by representing a genocidal dictator - but I should have known better than to get attached, because she receives scant mention throughout the rest of the book.

As the chapters progress, so does the growing cast of characters, each adding to what feels like an incongruous patchwork of story-lines – that is until enough characters have piled on and the web of interrelatedness tightens, forming a coherent system.  It’s a very cool effect, although exhausting to keep track of.  It’s like attending a bizarre rock-and-roll family reunion and trying to map out who is second cousins with whom ("So, that girl's mom used to work for that guy whose ex-wife used to be the girl's mother's assistant?).  I've read other multiple voice narratives, but this was the only one where I found it a little distracting. Still, the book (and soon to be HBO series) is smart, expertly written and completely enjoyable.  It is a superior example of literary fiction.  But did it Rock?  Almost.

Ransom - Reference 

1 comment: said...

Guitar shaped piece of origami!! Love it.