June 17th, 2012
I didn’t read Jennifer Egan’s *A Visit from the Goon Squad* when it first came out, even though I heard it was very good and won a lot of prizes. There’s just too many books that’s true of, and I didn’t know who Jennifer Egan was anyway.
Then I heard a rumour: even though *Goon Squad* had “a novel” on the front cover, that was a marketing move. The rumour had it that it was a short-story collection in disguise. But unlike short-story collections that sales considerations force into the guise of a novel, apparently this one didn’t semi-suck–everyone seemed to love it. I was intrigued.
As soon as I started reading, I realized I did in fact know who Jennifer Egan is–I had read three of the first four stories previously, when they were published in the *New Yorker*. And they were very very good stories, which had impressed me at the time and did even more so in the book. I blame the fact that I never noticed they were all by the same person is that the voices are so various.
The reason for the “even more” love in the book context is because the stories illuminate each other–there’s layers of facts, character and context from one that make the next make sense in different ways than it did standing alone. And as I say, they were pretty darn strong standing alone.
By the time I was four stories into the book, I had realized that *Goon Squad* wasn’t a book of stories, and it wasn’t a novel–it was genuinely and truly both, which is pretty much the equivalent of a plate made of spoons. Nothing the world necessarily needs, or so it thinks, but when you see it done well, it makes your eyes pop open, makes you think about at how you’ve always defined both the plate and the spoon and if both couldn’t do quite a bit more than those limited definitions.
If they’re Jennifer Egan’s plate and spoon, they can.
This book is fucking amazing. It is the best thing I’ve read in years, so good I stopped thinking about how it was working and had to go back and read bits again for the technical lessons I knew were hiding in there. So good I loved and hated the characters and actually teared up for Sasha at one point (I never do that) and always wanted Benny to do better and genuinely love these people.
This book is *bigger* than most novels–its reach is larger, extending from the late 70s to the mid 2020s (and with that future tilt, the tiniest touch of science fiction). But not just temporal reach–there are at least 15 fully fleshed, vivid, active characters–as opposed to the 2 or 3 you get in so many novels, surrounded by a cast of “secondaries” that too-obviously know their place. The real joy of this book is that no one is secondary–everyone is firmly ensconced in their own lives, living as best they can through each day, through each story.
No, no, the real joy of *Goon Squad* is that it is a new kind of book, one with various focii, various voices, enormous ambition and no consideration at all of what shelf at the bookstore it will sit on. It’s stunning, and both inspiring and deeply deeply daunting to those of us trying to write in a similarly fearless way.