Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (and the incumbent title-holder, since the Board decided that every book published in 2012 sucked and declined to give the award to anyone), is a hybrid novel/short story collection, weaving long vignettes involving a small group of interconnected characters together across time to track, backwards and forwards, their rises, falls, and sometimes rises again. The results are often funny and occasionally tragic, but the writing and characterization are so compelling that when Egan punts the entire thing in the final two sections it is an enormous disappointment.
The book doesn’t have a single protagonist, but we do see several of the core characters in multiple stories, including Sasha, the charismatic, troubled young woman with an unexplained penchant for stealing, one that doesn’t even fully abate when she’s confronted with the consequences of one of her thefts. She works for the unctuous Benny Salazar, a record executive whose fortunes ebb and flow with popular tastes, and whose own history includes a stint in a punk band where many of the novel’s central relationships began. He’s a bit of a wacko magnet, like the former bandmate of his who shows up at Benny’s office one day bearing a freshly-caught fish, or the snobby neighbors in the suburb where he moves with his young, self-conscious wife, looking down on the nouveau-riche Hispanic guy in the neighborhood – who might be a terrorist, because, well, you know. The spectre of 9/11 hangs over many of the stories set in the few years after its aftermath, with the majority of the novel happening in spitting distance of New York City.
The novel’s unconventional structure, with a nonlinear narrative and changing perspectives, gives Egan some room to stretch out and show off her writing skills, which she does well for most of the book. One section comprises a magazine feature, presumably unpublished, written by the brother of one of the major characters, an account of a celebrity puff piece gone so wrong that he ends up in jail (with cause) and the celebrity’s career ends up so derailed that she eventually finds herself paid to be the consort of a murderous third-world dictator, one of the funniest sections of the book, even more timely with the Arab Spring occurring after the novel’s publciation. Sasha runs away from home as a teenager, and one section has her feckless uncle trying to find her in Naples to coax her to come home. The changing styles shift our views of characters, peeling back layers while also turning the onion to show us as much as possible in such a short space.
The last two sections destroyed the book for me, unfortunately. The first of the two is a ninety-page slideshow – excuse me, slidshow – written the daughter of one of those recurring characters, describing their family dynamic and the slightly depressing future in which they live. It’s gimmicky and superficial, losing the depth and most of the wit of the previous sections. The final story is set in a dystopian future a few decades from now, with Egan embarrassing herself trying to craft her own texting vernacular, and where interpersonal skills have broken down the point that people standing next to each other communicate via their devices. It wasn’t funny enough to be a parody and it was a lousy way to send off some great characters.
Next up: I’m past the one-quarter mark in William Gaddis’ mammoth novel The Recognitions. I’m hoping to finish before Thanksgiving week.