Egan envy.

There’s applause all around for Jennifer Egan‘s recent book, A Visit from the Goon Squad, and for good reason: it’s excellent.  But it’s not a book for somebody who wants an easy read.   If you’re in the mood for a cozy, a legal thriller, a bodice-ripper, chick lit – in fact, almost any kind of popular book written to formula – Goon Squad‘s not for you.

I didn’t realize, when starting to read the book just after Christmas, that it was a series of interwoven short stories. That’s because I don’t read the jacket blurbs. They usually give away way too much info.

The stories feature overlapping characters and move backwards and forwards in time.  The first story, Found Objects, features Sasha.  Sasha is attractive, well-educated, successful, and a kleptomaniac.   I got to know Sasha pretty well in Found Object’s 14 pages.  I liked her.  I worried about her.

I expected the next chapter to be more Sasha.  And it sort of is.  The story, The Gold Cure, features Sasha’s boss, Bennie.  Bennie is kind of an unusual guy, a former music wunderkind now doing not-so-well, with a bizarre habit of eating gold flakes.   Sasha’s in there, but she’s not the focus, and I soon found myself sucked into Bennie’s life.  I liked him.  I worried about him, too.   He’s kind of a screw-up.  Nothing ever seems to go quite right.

And that’s how it goes with A Visit to the Goon Squad.  You just get to know one person, get into their head, and it’s time to move on.  The book is like a really excellent box of chocolates.  The stories are all good, they’re all interesting, but they’re good and interesting in different ways.  Several characters show up in more than one story, often to heart-breaking effect.

Not to be missed is the penultimate story, Great Rock and Roll Pauses, a tale told in PowerPoint, ostensibly by Alison Blake.  It’s like nothing I’ve ever read before – the very clear voice of a teenage girl, talking about her dysfunctional but still loving family, in a series of PowerPoint slides.  It’s touching, true and funny.  And, of course, wildly imaginative.

A Visit from the Goon Squad is the kind of book that makes me envy the author. Not for her success, but for her sheer talent.  She’s amazing.

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4 responses to “Egan envy.

  1. literarylunchbox

    That’s a great point, Matthew – the best books combine the best of both worlds. I love getting caught up and even moreso when it can be challenging as well.

  2. I agree the Jennifer Egan is amazing, at least from my one experience with her – The Keep. As a reader of that book, I found her storytelling spellbinding – evidently far easier to grab onto than A Visit from the Good Squad. As a novelist, I found The Keep a narrative wonder; on that score, The New York Times said, “Jennifer Egan shares John Fowles’s unusual gift for transporting the reader into a world where magical thinking actually works.”

    I guess part of my attraction to Egan comes around to the fact, that my own novel, Monhegan Windows used Fowles, especially the The French Lieutenant’s Woman and its story-telling-a-story as one of its jumping-off points, then complicated the narrative structure from there. (I continue to thank you, Karen, for all the excellent critiquing you gave of the novel through several years of writers groups together.)

    I do have a thought spinning off from your opening comments: Does challenging, enriching fiction and “an easy read” have to be mutual exclusive? After my (still basically in a drawer) first novel, Incognito, which the few people who have read it all agreed was enriching and absorbing . . . and daunting like a Pynchon, Barth and García Márquez at their most complex, I gave myself the challenge of writing a novel that at once could be an enjoyable summer read and withstand academic analysis for decades to come (alas, were it ever to penetrate college classrooms).

    Perhaps this folds back to the Franzen/Oprah question of “popular” versus “serious” fiction. As far as Egan, she flirts with being “popular” (at least her appearances on bestseller lists suggest that) while writing “serious,” thought-provoking work.

  3. This has been on my list and has now been bumped to the top, thanks to your post. I first became aware of Egan with The Invisible Circus (gosh, back in the mid 90s? Yikes!). Thanks for sharing your review!

  4. I love finding authors whose talent blows me away. I’ll have to go check out this book. Thanks for the recommendation!

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