Over a year ago I was given a copy of A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. It has sat on my shelf since, not because I didn’t want to read it, but because I never found the time and heard it was quite the time-consuming read.
Well I just read it in probably three days. Because while it might be confusing at times, it’s also absolutely brilliant. WHY did it take me so long again?
The book is loosely about the lives of Bennie, a record executive, and Sasha, his troubled assistant. I say loosely because really only two chapters are singularly about them, even though the entire book tells their story. Good Squad is made up of 13 individual stories that can be read on their own (some have been published on their own prior to the book’s released), or, in this case, together. On their own they’re great snippets of various lives, but together create a tapestry of a story. Because each short story reveals another layer of Bennie or Sasha. The story may be about the life of an aspiring actress, or a dying producer, but each person passed through one of their lives, and contributed to who they were, who they are, and who they become. Through these stories about other people, we learn what happens to Bennie and Sasha over the years – where they came from and where they end up.
And I found that absolutely fascinating, and novel way to, well, write a novel.
Most importantly, while each story changes narrator, they also change time. Going from the late 1960s (ish) through the future, the stories jump back and forth in time as each unfolds. While the first chapter takes place in current time, the next jumps back…but then the fifth catapults you much further forward in time.
It’s this storytelling that brings out one of the neatest things – there aren’t many surprises because most moments are mentioned early on and then unfold later. For instance, in a later chapter you wonder what will happen to Bennie and his wife, who are in the midst of a quarrel. But you don’t have to wonder, because in chapter 2 you already learn that they’re divorced with a son. It’s like…a big plot element is revealed, and then chapters later you get it completely explained. And there’s an “ah ha!” moment of you putting two and two together. It’s experimental writing at its best.
(I will fully admit that while reading this, I jotted down each character I met because I knew they’d probably appear again later on. Many did. I realize how dorky that was, but it was also quite fun.)
I think the way the whole story was written really showcases the main theme – how time is a goon, a bully. Whether you want it to or not, it pushes you along from stage to stage in your life. You’ll have some ups, you’ll have some downs (and these characters have many, many downs),but you’ll keep going.
You’ll grow up.