Egan deploys it with great delicacy. Her father, a surgeon adored by colleagues, remains rather a mystery to his wife and children. I took a while getting around to A Visit from the Goon Squad , which appeared in and won a Pulitzer Prize last year. The title was unattractive and the contents pop-music people struggle with life even less enticing. But when finally I read the first pages, I was transfixed.
For the next 36 hours I found all other activities bothersome because they took me away from this marvellous book. The opening chapter describes Sasha, an attractive young kleptomaniac, given to taking ever more dangerous chances as she acts out her disorder. Most of her characters live within popular music: They play it, write it, produce recordings of it or sell it. Egan moves the reader decades back from the point where she begins, then forward again, then finally ahead, to a moment in the future.
She assembles her story carefully but never predictably. Every chapter is a surprise.
And when finally we come to think we understand her system, she provides fresh proof of her ingenuity. And technology has eagerly leapt to accommodate a new demographic group: gadget-loving children. Pity the poor rock stars who find themselves at the mercy of toddlers who have purchasing power.
Time, Thrashing to Its Own Rock Beat
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- Modernity’s Undoing;
- A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan – review | Books | The Guardian.
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Interview: Jennifer Egan on A Visit from the Goon Squad | Scottish Book Trust
But its personalities now ripple across other chapters. Sasha also reappears later in the book in two different geographical settings: as a teenager, and then as a mother of two children. If the shock of recognition on both occasions is oddly powerful — a recurring sensation in the book — it is not because we realise that something very dramatic has happened to her, or indeed to Bennie. And since Egan here is fully committed to the modernist fragment, her usual narrative devices — shifts in time, different points of view — now seem perfectly matched to her material.
The new novel carefully rations information such as social and personal background. People who would only be allowed bit roles in a longer, intricately plotted novel kaleidoscopically emerge as figures in their own right. Egan exposes her toilers in the music industry to settings that range from s San Francisco through rural Africa, Westchester County and Naples to the New York City of the future.
This rarely feels like deliberate globetrotting. Balzac, the originator of the encyclopedic social novel, once claimed that in Paris vice perpetually joined the rich man to the poor, and the great to the humble. The proliferation of casual and secondary relationships opens up new possibilities for the polyphonic novel, which the form of Goon Squad eagerly embraces.
Not all of the devices she uses to multiply perspectives and narrative styles or complicate timelines are equally effective. The placid reader might be a bit exasperated by chapter openings which, because of the shifts in tone, always come as a small shock, demanding close attention.
Scotty drives his pickup, two of us squeezed in front with him, blasting bootleg tapes of the Stranglers, the Nuns, Negative Trend, the other two stuck in back where you freeze all year along, getting tossed in the actual air when Scotty tops the hills. It took me some time to catch up, to connect the scene with other geographically remote settings, but by then I was attuned to the hesitantly lyrical voice of the teenage narrator, and eager to see her adult self elsewhere in the book.
Even at her most experimental, Egan never loses her interest in characterisation, in the peculiar shapes individual lives assume. By forgoing omniscient, all-explaining narration, Egan seems to get at a deeper interiority. Indeed, doing away with the bulky contrivances of drama allows Egan to reveal the death by a thousand cuts that time inflicts on her characters.
The many instances of physical and moral decay in the novel remind us that in a culture centrally obsessed with youth and beauty, time is a particularly vicious thug.