Thursday, May 6, 2010

What happens between A and B?

A Visit from the Goon Squad
by Jennifer Egan

After reading a few chapters of Jennifer Egan's latest novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, I'd determined it was really a collection of linked stories more than a novel. Reading further, however, I saw the larger themes and the cohesiveness of the whole. It is, indeed, a novel, and an excellent one at that!

The book opens sometime in the recent past, and kleptomaniac Sasha is recounting a story to her therapist. Her former boss, record producer Benny Salazar, is mentioned in passing. The next chapter takes place several years earlier. Here Sasha is still Benny's assistant, and now it is he that is the first person narrator. Benny's just trying to get through a visit with his pre-teen son while mentally stifling a lifetime's worth of shame. He reflects, in passing, on his old high school gang, and in the next chapter we're back in San Francisco, circa 1980, with them. Benny wants Alice, but Alice wants Scotty. Scotty wants Jocelyn, but teenage Jocelyn is seeing Lou, a record producer more than twice her age. Don't worry, he'll get his chapter.

They all get a chapter or two or three. The story skips back and forth in time and place. The voice moves from first person to third person and even to second. Asides or characters that seemed tangential become central. And eventually several themes become apparent. The main one is not even subtle, as the traversing between points A and B is referenced several times in various ways. Scotty at one point asks, "I want to know what happened between A and B." An aging rock star's comeback album is entitled A to B. Even the two sections of this book, which might have been labeled "Part I" and "Part II" in another book, are here "A" and "B."

Another theme is the passage of time. The novel, as I mentioned earlier, moves back and forth freely along the timeline of characters' lives. Ranging from around 1980 to some point in the 2020's, we see the (often ravaging) effects of time.

One character states, "Time's a goon, right? Isn't that the expression?"
Another responds, "I've never heard that. 'Time's a goon?'"
"Would you disagree?"

The episodes that Egan spotlights are all, in some way, transformative for her characters. And let's talk about those characters. Reviewers like me will often extol "richly-drawn characters." It isn't until I read a novel like this--with insight so deep that you feel you know everything it's possible to know about these people based on brief snippets of their lives--that it really hits home what characterization is all about. Egan is THAT good.

Plus, there's the language. Her prose is truly a pleasure to read, no matter how absurd or at times unpleasant the subject matter. Egan's pointillistic novel roams from the New York music scene to an African safari; from the affluent suburbs to life on the edge in Naples, Italy; from a dictator's palace to our collective future. And in careening from place to place, time to time, and character to character in these linked lives, Jennifer Egan takes us from point A to point B.

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