Opening with a kleptomaniac on an awkward date, A Visit from the Goon Squad instantly promises something new and refreshing, and Jennifer Egan delivers merging a lively cast of characters and an experimental writing style to create an addictive and reflective novel. Providing a series of linked stories, the novel convers approximately 1973 to a year sometime in the 2020s, following a loosely affiliated group of struggling Punk Rock aficionados as they undergo all stages of life from their drugged out adolescence, to the triumphs and tribulations of middle age, to the retrospection and stability of their much older selves.
The story converges a fairly large cast – all connected through their life styles, their childhoods, and their aspirations to get involved in the lurid world of developing Punk Rock (yay for good music!). There is no true main character or, for that matter, main story. Instead, Egan produces a composite of life, following interrelated and interacting characters through every part of their lives. She doesn’t do this by presenting a linear story, or any character’s story in its complete format, but instead by alternating narrators (each character is allowed one chapter where they are the sole point of view). Readers are not given a complete story of any one individual, but instead join returning characters at highlights in their lives – the low point and the high point mainly. This technique effectively jolts the readers as each character goes through different portions of life. Highlighting what has changed and what has remained stable, each character maintains a strong personality and distinctive humanity that makes him/her especially appealing to the reader.
While there is no main character as such, the structure is hinged around the individuals. Or, seen a different way, all the returning characters are main characters and each story is the main story. The non-linear format is connected by the personalities we are familiar with – the fiery red-haired kleptomaniac, Sasha, the ambitious yet ultimately haunted Rock n’ Roll mogul, Bennie Salazar, the embittered but musically gifted Scotty, the disenchanted and violent ex-journalist, Jules, his starlet victim, Kitty Johnson, and many, many others that I am too lazy to name. The force of their personalities and the dramatic and enticing stories that surround their distinctive world creates a force field around the entire narrative, marking the progression of time and its effect on the individual both poignantly introspective and dramatically appealing.
All the transitions in time, while slightly confusing at first, keep the story fresh, the reader guessing, and most importantly, the pacing fast and dynamic. Unlike some literary fiction, which has a tendency to concentrate on characterization to the exclusion of plot, A Visit from the Goon Squad equalizes plot and characterization, delivering quite strongly in both areas, keeping fans of literary and genre fiction equally pleased and involved. The Punk Rock cultures lends itself nicely to strong plots as the characters experiment and then, later in life, encounter the results of their wild youth, providing ample opportunities for regret and longing for what once was. Very nicely done.
Of course, I haven’t really touched on the most experimental aspect of this novel yet. While the implementation of multiple narrators and characters as a driving structural point to merge the linked stories into a cohesive novel and the non-linear format (something that is beginning to appear as a staple of literary fiction and not so very unique after all) seem sufficiently innovative, there is more. Egan chooses to represent each chapter through a different style, switching not only POVs (point of views) but also narrative techniques, presenting some chapters in omniscient, some in first person, some in third person close in, some in third person . . . and then one in a PowerPoint slide hinging it all together on a strong final chapter that draws the threads together and makes the stories into a true novel. While this may all sound like a jumble, readers are hardly aware of it. These transitions in style fit nicely with the changing narrators and just serve to make each voice feel real without ever distracting readers from the plot itself. Authors will be interested in observing the writing techniques. Readers will enjoy the newness without being distracted. It’s a nice balance and, surprisingly, it works stunningly. I’m a fan.
One word of warning for the Kindlers and e-readers among us: the famous PowerPoint chapter is incredibly difficult to read in e-book format. Likewise, one chapter apparently makes use of footnotes, which are not displayed in the e-book format. This is a novel that really should be purchased in hard copy. I enjoyed it so much, that I had already planned to transition over to a hardback for my growing library anyway.
Combining rich narrative techniques and a compelling mélange of distinctive character stories, A Visit from the Goon Squad combines the appealing techniques of literary fiction with the textured drama of genre fiction to create a completely addictive and satisfying experience. The characters are vibrant and well-drawn, fallible and down to earth without ever loosing reader empathy and concern. The story is sufficiently exciting to keep the plot moving without ever losing sight of realism. Audiences are instantly able to connect. Highly recommended. Very enjoyable and addictive read. I will be certain to check out more offerings from this novelist.
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