Sunday, September 18, 2011

Review: A Visit from the Goon Squad

Title: A Visit from the Goon Squad
Author: Jennifer Egan
Genre: mixed
My Rating: ★★★★

“Time is a goon.” This not-so-popular adage served as the bobbin where Jennifer Egan unspooled threads of human foibles, which she deftly wove into her Pulitzer Prize-winning tapestry, A Visit from the Goon Squad.
This book is hard to classify. A novel? A collection of interlocking novellas? An anthology of short stories? With a wide array of damaged characters fueling the tangled tales towards a conclusion that humans are helpless against change and time, the book can easily become a concrete example of the concept of gestalt, or “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Each chapter can stand alone, but they are more powerful as a part of this one mobius strip of a book.

I think Egan’s true genius lies in how she handled the creation and development of her compelling characters. I have personally referred to them as “Dorian Gray mirrors,” reflecting different versions of our embarrassments, flaws, follies, frustrations, and other things that most people would prefer to be covered up in sunny facades. They are all broken, but not two of them are broken in the same way—their self-inflicted tragedies are as unique as their fingerprints.

You would think that for a book populated with supposedly pity-inducing characters, it would be not hard to draw out sympathy from the readers. Egan did not play from that angle; in fact, I think she was shunning from it, making the characters as real and as unlikable as possible. She succeeded in doing just that, as it did take me a while to like the characters. After I uncovered the histories of their inner scars and after having them engaged in indirect emotional hotplates, I began to actually care for them. I even have a few favorites: Sasha, the kleptomaniac secretary of record executive/The Flaming Dildos ex-bassist Bennie Salazar; Scotty, another TFD rock star who has gone off the grid for a long time; and (surprisingly) Lulu, a she’s-going-to-rule-the-world kind of girl following the steps of her powerful publicist mother, LaDoll.

Now we discuss Egan’s orthodox style, which has spun lots of criticisms as well as praises. The whole book covers a span of forty years, ranging from the seedy music scenes of 1970s to a post-apocalyptic, techno-savvy future. It would have been easier for the readers if Egan chose linear narration, but apparently the word ‘easy’ was never in her lexicon. She arranged each chapter in a non-chronological way, and then penned them in different POVs (all three) and formats (there was a 76-page story in Microsoft Powerpoint Presentation form!). One minute we see a balding Bennie Salazar sprinkling flakes of gold in his tea for sexual potency, then we see him as a robust young musician strumming his bass in the next; that’s basically the formula, jumping in time loops at random. Egan chose a labyrinthine storytelling that will come off as awfully confusing at first, but once we picked up the “links”—the music and the characters’ colliding fates—it would be equivalent to giving ourselves a mental map.

The chapters contain a hodgepodge of genres: a few were dark and depressing, a handful was heartfelt and inspiring, and some were side-splittingly funny. My favorite chapter was Scotty Hausmann’s X’s and O’s, where the readers were finally given a glimpse of the lost TFD frontman. I consider it as the funniest among the bunch and one of the most emotionally affecting ones, and it amazed me how Egan pulled that off. Scotty has become a janitor after the members of The Flaming Dildos went their separate ways, and he paid Bennie a visit in his office one day after learning of his friend’s success from a magazine. Here are two of my favorite paragraphs from the chapter:
“Things had gotten — what’s the word? Dry. Things had gotten sort of dry for me. I was working as a city janitor in a neighborhood elementary school and, in summers, collecting litter in the park alongside the East River near the Williamsburg Bridge. I felt no shame whatsoever in these activities, because I understood what almost no one else seemed to grasp: that there was only an infinitesimal difference, a difference so small that it barely existed except as a figment of the human imagination, between working in a tall green glass building on Park Avenue and collecting litter in a park. In fact, there may have been no difference at all.”
“I looked down at the city…I thought: if I had a view like this to look down on every day, I would have the energy and inspiration to conquer the world. The trouble is, when you most need such a view, no one gives it to you.”
All in all, this is a good read: moving, humorous, thought-provoking, and inspiring. Giving it 4 stars! :P

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