Filed under: Book Reviews, Literary Fiction, short stories | Tags: a visit from the goon squad, books, jennifer egan, literature, music, pulitzer, reading, short stories
Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer-winning collection of linked short stories, A Visit from the Goon Squad, is an extraordinary book, the sort that despite its occasional stretching of boundaries and definitions of what fiction is and can be (a powerpoint presentation, anyone?) is ultimately satisfying for Egan’s sheer good storytelling.
Goon Squad is full of gaps, spaces between stories that go unexplored until a hundred pages later, years of characters’ lives that are never explained or are only obliquely hinted at. It’s a powerful work for the ways Egan involves the reader in the text; details that would in other works be major plot points are here only gestured at, pushing the reader to do the work of filling in the lives that Egan has plotted for us. Following Sasha, who is at various times presented as wayward youth, assistant to the record producer Benny Salazer, a woman with more skill for picking up parts of other people’s lives than for understanding her own, and wife and mother. Sasha’s life doesn’t appear chronologically, though, and neither do those her story intersects with; Benny appears at one point through his wife’s eyes, as she struggles to fit in with the country club community they are trying to become a part of, at another time peripherally as a young man meeting the producer who will be his mentor, at another as his career falters and he’s taken to drinking hundreds of dollars of gold leaf with his coffee in the hopes it will return to him some of his former virility. Benny’s mentor, Lou, is a dying man being visited by the middle-aged women he once entertained as teens, standing by his bed and “unsure what to do” because they knew “him from a time when there was no such thing as normal people dying” (85), a success with a good car and something appealing to offer a teenaged hitchhiker, a father on a safari failing, in some way, to connect with his children, and in another falling into the life they push him to lead.
By showing her characters in glimpses, by having them appear only for a second in the story of another life and later in a light different than we ever could have imagined them, Egan illuminates the whole of a life, of many lives. One of her characters, the possibly off-his-rocker reporter Jules Jones, writes of the movie star Kitty Jackson that he feels “surrounded by her, blundering inside her life without having moved” (177), and that’s how the reader of this novel (or collection of stories, whatever you want to call it) should feel. Egan arrays these lives around her readers, and there’s a wonderful freedom in the way she allows her reader to blunder into the lives of her characters; there may be gaps, there may be unknowns, there may be times when we enter a character’s life at the “wrong” time, chapters before we will really know them as they once knew themselves, but in those blank spaces and stumblings from one time and one person to another there is a sense of immersion. Egan’s characters are everywhere, all at once, because she never limits where or when or how they can be.
The powerpoint chapter, “Great Rock and Roll Pauses” (by Alison Blake, Sasha’s daughter) has received an amount of attention that might seem exorbitant to anyone who hasn’t yet read Goon Squad. It’s this chapter, though, in which Alison charts her brother Lincoln’s obsession with pauses in rock songs, that provides a structure and way of viewing the rest of the novel. Lincoln’s description of the pause in “Bernadette” by the Four Tops acts as an explanation for his obsession with great rock pauses: “’You think, Hey, the song didn’t end after all – but then, 26.5 seconds later, it does end’” (244). It’s the pleasure, in these stories, of knowing that a story isn’t over although it appears to be over; it’s the pleasure of rediscovering a character before the marriage fell apart, or of reentering their lives and finding that they’ve managed to collect themselves in a way that seemed impossible when they first appeared. And, sometimes, the opposite pleasure, or pain, of having nothing more:
“The pause makes you think the song will end. And then the song isn’t really over, so you’re relieved. But then the song does actually end, because every song ends, obviously, and THAT. TIME. THE. END. IS. FOR. REAL.” (281)
The worlds of Egan’s characters revolve around music: people who make music, who produce music, who date people involved with music, who listen for the great pauses in music, who try (and sometimes succeed, and sometimes fail, and sometimes do both) to one degree or another to form their lives around music. We keep hearing that “time’s a goon,” and Lincoln comes closer than any of Egan’s other characters to explaining why: sometimes it pauses, sometimes we think it’s stopped, sometimes we think it’s over, but it isn’t; but we know, the whole time, that it will be over, and that eventually, that end will. be. for. real.