you gonna let that goon push you around?

As some of you may know from my recent post, last week, Jennifer Egan’s book, A Visit from the Goon Squad, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. This morning it was also long-listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction.

A Visit From the Goon Squad is brilliant. It’s not a novel in the traditional sense. The chapters can be read and appreciated as stand-alone pieces. In fact, four have been published that way: “Selling the General” in the anthology This Is Not Chick Lit published in 2006; and three in The New Yorker: “Found Objects” (Chapter 1) in the December 10, 2007 issue, “Safari” (Chapter 4) in the January 11, 2010 issue, and “Ask Me If I Care” (Chapter 3) in the March 8, 2010 issue.

In her review in The New York Times, Janet Maslin is unsure whether the book is “a novel, a collection of carefully arranged interlocking stories or simply a display of Ms. Egan’s extreme virtuosity.” In an interview on Selected Shorts, Jennifer Egan referred to sections of her book as stories and also as chapters of a longer book.

Regardless of their severability, when read as pieces of a longer work, they shine–oh, they shine. Like separate parts of the universe talking to each other.

The chapters move backward and forward, and part of the pleasure of reading each one is to figure out where we are in time. From Chapter 13: “Pure Language:”

Time’s a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?

And there are sufficient clues—dates, ages, references to events we’ve read about in other chapters—that the reader enjoys the challenge and never feels frustrated. And after all we should struggle with time, for that is the subject of the book. Time. Who we were then, who we are now, and how we got from there to here—from side A to side B.

From Chapter 7: “A to B:”

The album’s called A to B, right? Bosco said. “And that’s the question I want to hit straight on: how did I go from being a rock star to being a fat fuck no one cares about? Let’s not pretend it didn’t happen.

In the same Selected Shorts interview, Egan said, “And one of the principles of the longer book is that each chapter had to be written in a very different way technically from all the others.”

Because each of the chapters has its own separate sound, when they all play together, the result is the answer to E. M. Forster’s question in Aspects of the Novel:

Is there any effect in novels comparable to the effect of the Fifth Symphony as a whole, where, when the orchestra stops, we hear something that has never actually been played?

Brilliant.

The first in a series of posts on A Visit From the Goon Squad. For the second post, click Pure Egan.

cross-posted at The Contrary Blog