Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Thoughts on 'A Visit from the Goon Squad'

Orginally published in Nazar.
Picture: Wolf Gang
You chip away and you chip away. You write and you re-write. Keep chipping away. More polish needed. Yeah, it’s just about right now. No wait, chip away, take it out. Yep, good enough. Maybe.

Rinse and repeat for 13 chapters.

Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer winning ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’ is a guide to aspiring writers. It’s also quite unconventional. There’s a shift in time, location and point of view as you move from chapter to chapter which makes it hard to name one key character that drives the story. Bennie Salazar, executive at Sow’s Ear Records, seems to be the closest to a traditional protagonist. He forms the central link that binds the rest of the characters to each other and to the world of music that forms the backdrop in most chapters. He takes on different roles in the book – employer, father, husband, band member of punk rock group Flaming Dildos – and moves in and out of the spotlight as characters around him deal with their self-destructive and insecure tendencies.

Egan’s stylistic flourishes vary from chapter to chapter but many of them are so subtle (the anthropological observations in chapter 4 (Safari) being a notable exception) and well-crafted that you don’t notice them until you make an active effort to decipher her genius (or as in my case you take a writing class with really smart people who point them out to you). Each chapter can live on its own (and some do in a few literary magazines) but the Ah moment when you link the ‘fat fuck’ that no one cares about in chapter 7 to the nutcase guitarist in his prime in chapter 10 is a delight.

Egan seems to have an array of literary techniques at her disposal and I can imagine her using them at will, attaining an effect that great composers achieve by carefully inserting new and different sounds a couple of layers beneath, à la A.R. Rahman in Dil Gira Dafatan, that you pick out only if you’re really listening. Personal experience, however, convinces me that it took her numerous re-writes, tons of head bump marks on her desk and caffeine-pumped sessions to make it all ‘just work’. I’m sticking to this image of her – the hard-at-work writer using all that she’s internalized by reading the masters of literary fiction to craft her own magic.

In the book, Egan sometimes indulges herself with in-your-face style sophistications — blatantly using unconventional methods to slow down the reader’s advance to the end of the chapter. In chapter 9 (Forty-Minute Lunch), she uses footnotes to let the point of view character ramble, a technique that I didn’t really warm up to when I read David Foster Wallace’s ‘Brief Interviews with Hideous Men’. It’s a huge risk, asking readers to step back from the action and allow themselves to be taken through an internal monologue only to be dropped back to the story’s present which is on its own mission. I don’t see Forty Minute Lunch working as wonderfully though without the footnotes:

Thought 1 (at the sight of Kitty dipping her finger and sucking it): Can it possible be that this ravishing young girl is coming on to me?
Thought 2: No that’s out of the question.
Thought 3: But why is it out of the question?
Thought 4: Because she’s a famous nineteen-year old movie star and you’re “heavier all of a sudden – or am I just noticing it more?” (– Janet Green, during our last, failed sexual encounter) and have a skin problem and no worldly clout.
It’s my favorite chapter.
In chapter 11 (Good-bye, My Love) she plays around with language beautifully:
Ted became aware of a subterranean patter around him, an interplay of glances, whistles, and signals that seemed to include nearly everyone, from the crone draped in black outside the church to the kid in the green T-shirt who kept buzzing past Ted on his Vespa, grazingly close. Everyone but himself.
And in chapter 13 (Great Rock and Roll Pauses) Egan flaunts convention readily by using a PowerPoint presentation to tell a story. She keeps the reader’s attention by punctuating paragraphs with stellar lines (“He’s usually looking at Alice, so I can watch him as much as I want.”) and is okay with the risk of losing it by favoring a switch in point-of-view every so often. She carefully tweaks the narrative distance — she’s got you looking at the world she’s created from a safe space and all of a sudden inserts you right by the central character, making you watch the action unfold as if you were right there. Zoom out, zoom in.

Jennifer Egan exhibits mastery over language and the courage to experiment throughout a superbly written novel. What you get is an extremely rewarding read.