My friend, Grey, and I are starting the new year with a small book club. And when I say small, I mean small: it’s a book club of two. Of course, perhaps it will become more than that through this blog, but I like the idea that Grey and I are responsible to each other as we dig into our readings a little bit.
Our first reading was Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Good Squad. The book has received a lot of critical attention. In 2010 it won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction and in 2011 it won the Pulitzer. Apparently it’s currently being adapted as a mini-series for HBO. Goon Squad has also made the professional book club rounds: it was read by both Slate’s Audio Book Club and The New Yorker’s Book Club Blog. Here it is written up in The New York Times and here is Egan discussing the book after winning the Pulitzer on PBS Newshour. Finally, if you’re interested, I would recommend reading this review by a British academic that appeared in The Guardian, which to my mind offers the best commentary on the novel.
Most of these reviews focus on the question of time, and particularly how the short stories weave back and forth chronologically to reveal that time doesn’t have good things in store for its unsuspecting victims / heroes. These critical reviews of the novel correspond to one of the character’s reference to time as a “goon squad.” According to this interpretation, time squashes the dreams of our youth and gets us all in the end. Or something like that.
I’m not sure I agree with this take on the novel. In fact, I’m not sold on the title at all.
One the strength’s of A Visit from the Goon Squad’s is the way it moves back and forth in time, neither forward or backward, just kind of skipping along and between various characters who may or may not know one another at some other point in the novel’s trajectory. For example, perhaps we’ve already seen a character in middle-age before being introduced to him / her earlier in our reading through another twist of the narrative kaleidoscope as a youth. Each of the chapters feels like a discreet moment in time, but also one that is connected to all these other moments, if only by a single thread. It’s rather ingenious really. From my reading of the novel, the characters aren’t necessarily filled with youthful innocence, in fact many of them are troubled adolescents, already world-weary before they’ve hardly begun. This rings true in a way that the wide-eyed wonder of fictionalized youth does not. As we bounce around in time some of these characters fall into the very traps they saw coming, some of them avoid the traps they were focused on but fall into others, and then some fall and land in a place they could have never expected that we could call contentment or happiness.
For me, the most iconic figure of the novel is not the goon squad, but rather the sculptural art made out of trash and left-over scraps that one of the central characters ends up building in her less rocky and more contented second stage of adulthood. Her daughter writes about this art in a chapter designed as a series of powerpoint slides: “Her sculptures fall apart, which is ‘part of the process’” (242). Falling apart is most definitely part of the process for these characters, a process mirrored in the novel’s very structure. Seen this way it appears to me that the novel itself has been reconstructed out of pieces of another novel whose sections came loose from their original binding and were then put back together in the order they fell. We can imagine there are entire sections that never made it back into the whole, much as many of these characters don’t find peace within the frame of the book’s pages. To sum up the book as one where time is a goon, coming to get you and everyone else, seems to miss the point. The lives that make up the story, like the art that emerges from the remainders and scraps, are not foolish for their impermanence. Rather, they are pieces of riddles made significant only in the act of looking at them again in their state of disrepair, from which the invisible thread of their connection to the whole can be seen again in a different light. Indeed, perhaps it’s not even the sculptural heaps of trash that hold the essential nexus of meaning, but only the act itself of reconstructing that matters at all.