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Summer Reading Part 5: A Visit From the Goon Squad

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I know these posts about books are not as fun to read as posts about movies or television shows, because not as many people have read the books as have watched the shows and films. Films and shows are large nodes of shared experience; everyone is a critic when it comes to TV and movies because everyone has access to them and everyone thinks they understand them. It's fun to praise them and bash them because it reveals our tastes and allows us to show how clever we are. But mainly they provide material for conversation -- a way for us to talk to each other. So I suppose I am closing the conversation down a little when I write about books. Because these posts deal with concerns that writers have at writing programs, I know they're not for everyone. I also know that some people who consider themselves writers will take issue with my ideas, or just think I'm stupid, but that's okay too, as long as the posts allow for some conversations about books.

Two more books for the summer are Jennifer Egan's A Visit From the Goon Squad and Martha Buskirk's Creative Enterprise. The first is a book of fiction that anyone interested in how we've been living in this country for the past 30 years will enjoy. It is the perfect blend of accessible writing, innovative design and literary pedigree. The other book is about contemporary art. It's not for everyone, but if you're interested in how that confusing thing called the 'art world' operates, it is a great guide. Buskirk examines the heterogeneous contemporary art world where everything from performance instructions to diamond encrusted skulls is sold for big money. It breaks down the art business and art-making in a way that will enlighten ignorant scoffers and challenge inside practitioners.

I took every literary person's advice and read Jennifer Egan's A Visit From the Goon Squad to study the way that the somewhat fractured stories are linked. They were right: I was very taken with the ever-shifting focus on different characters from piece to piece, as well as by the temporal vacillation. By linking the stories through seemingly casual references and by shifting the time, and often the place, I felt the excitement of anticipation as I started each new section, trying to place the characters and the setting, knowing that the new story would fill in some gap in the universe belonging to these loosely connected characters. While reading, I would guess which minor characters in the present story would become the protagonist in the next story. This non-linear linking gives the collection energy and pace that is a dependent more on the shifting focus than it is on revealing any major plot points. In a linear novel, the tension of the story is often dependent on how the narrative unfolds and how the characters overcome their obstacles. In A Visit From the Goon Squad, we often know what is going to happen when we come upon a new section because the outcome was already revealed in an earlier section. When we jump back in time and see Bennie and his friends in High School, we know that Bennie will not become a musician because we've seen his older executive incarnation; we also know that Bennie's brother in law, the journalist, will attack Kitty at the end of the interview because we have already seen him post-prison when we get to the flashback of the interview. This creates a different kind of tension than what is found in linearly unfolding plot. Goon Squad isn't really dependent on revealing plot points at all. What Egan does is creates a tapestry before our eyes, filling in little details as place markers to be elaborated upon later. The process of creating the picture is actually what gives the piece its energy.

Let's examine some of the links to see how they work. The first story is about Sasha, Bennie's assistant. We don't know much about how she will fit into the rest of the novel, but because she is the first character to whom we are introduced, an expectation is established that she will be a main character. This is true to an extent, but not in a traditional way where she is the focalizer for the rest of the book. We are given at least three or four threads that will be picked up in later stories: she works for a music executive that eats gold; she is a kleptomaniac; she had a friend in college that drowned; and she is on a date with a man named Alex, who is new to the city. Because this is the first story, the reader doesn't quite know how the rest of the book will be connected, so he doesn't know to look for these threads and hold onto them for later. One thing that happened often when I got to a new section was that I would return to previous sections to hunt down the initial mention of the new protagonist. I think the earlier stories have easier transitions because the book is just starting and the author is very intent on creating a core cast of characters -- mainly Sasha and Bennie, who are the two characters around which many of the other stories revolve. The first two stories also create a setting and timeframe that become the nucleus around which the stories with other times and places can revolve, namely New York City somewhere close to the present. The transition from Sasha to Bennie is not a huge jump. Both stories happen around the same time and even though Bennie takes over as the protagonist, Sasha remains as a secondary character of some importance in the second story, unlike some of the more radical shifts that happen later. We see her and hear her talk in a form and tone close to the ones she possesses in the first story. The difference, however, is that she is now on the outside of the close-third person narrator's perspective. Thus, we see her from a different perspective.

The third and fourth sections take huge leaps, still maintaining connections via the characters, but the temporal and geographical shifts are much greater; in addition, the stylistic shifts become more pronounced. The third story picks up on some casual memories that Bennie has in the second section about his high school friends, and transports us back to Bennie's high school days, seen through the eyes of one of his friends. Because Bennie only mentions the names of his high school friends once in the second section, it takes a little more effort to make the connection between Sections Two and Three. But once it's established that Section Three is the elaboration of the Flaming Dildos story -- only touched on in Section Two -- the story is off and running. But because we now have a first person narrator, we are thrust into close emotional proximity with a new character, making Part Three an examination of both Bennie and the new character Rhea. The distance between the Bennie as the successful music executive we saw in part two and the awkward teenager who can't play base in Part Three creates energy because we want to see how the two characters come together. We are already invested in Bennie because we went through his struggles with him in Part Two (his sorrow over his divorce, his impotence, his attempts to connect with his child, his need to sign a good band, his attraction to his assistant). Now we are interested to see how the young Bennie became the old Bennie. In Part Three, we are also introduced to Jocelyn, Scotty and Alice -- all of whom will play various parts in the novel later -- and Lou, who is a different kind of character. Because he is such a vampire, it is more difficult to use him as a sympathetic focalizer. Lou is introduced in Part Three when we hear that he picked up a high school student on the road and then snorted cocaine off her ass and fucked her. Later, she gives him a blowjob on stage at the Flaming Dildos concert. In the middle of all this, we hear about a safari that he once took with his children, so the transition to a safari story in Part Four is not unexpected -- we know how the book is working at this point. But Lou is pointedly not the focalizer in Part Four. He is still the foil, as he will be in his last appearance in Chapter Five. He is a character that creates experiences for the protagonists, but we never get close to him.

Egan has created a network of characters and places that is both as solid and as open ended as life.