June 02, 2011

Musical Time Travel

A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
reviewed by Courtney

As the recipient of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction as well as a myriad of other awards, Jennifer Egan's A Visit From The Goon Squad was one of the most hyped novels of the past year. The marketing and presentation, which focused heavily on the rock and roll elements of the story, were not entirely misleading, but Egan's work is far more than a nostalgic glorification of bygone American popular music.

The novel lacks a strictly linear construction, presenting the interwoven experiences and lives of many different characters from the 1960's through the present and into Egan's mildly cautionary vision of a near future. The disjointed, layered narrative emphasizes the novel's exploration of the effects of passing time and aging on its characters, a theme also reinforced by the mentions of the swift fluctuations and reinventions of popular music.

This fragmentation of the novel's format places the emphasis on the characters, whose lives are presented in a series of apparently unconnected sketches; the novel initially seems more like a collection of short stories. As the narrative continues, the connections between the different characters becomes clear, and the underlying temporal themes are revealed. This character-driven construction allows the reader to come to these larger conclusions almost independently of the narration, which lends a sense of gravity to what could easily have been an unoriginal concept.

Regardless of larger thematic considerations, the reader is left primarily with an impression of Egan's characters, some of whom are quite memorable. An autistic boy catalogs recorded pauses in popular music in a section narrated by his sister in the form of a PowerPoint slide-show printout; a teenage punk girl watches the seduction of her friend by a much older man in the music business in Los Angeles; a successful young woman steals a wallet from an open purse in the restroom on a first date; an aging music producer sprinkles pure gold flakes in his coffee; an unhappy college student takes an ill-advised swim in the Hudson River.

Her characters are touching, and her snapshot depictions of past musical eras are strikingly compelling, but Egan's vision of the near future is slightly more problematic. As the story moves through the present day into a potential future, the specificity and experiential nature of the narrative becomes somewhat lost in her need to establish this future as a likely and necessary result of the present. Egan's future New York is a world entirely dictated by her characters' relation to technology; conversations are conducted via text message, even in the case of face to face meetings, and children's music is the dominant genre, spurred by the massive consumption of one-touch song purchases by that newly dominant demographic. Though Egan is careful to avoid overt moralizing, her future seems clearly cautionary, a stance which is at odds with her earlier depictions of time and change as inescapable but ultimately value-independent forces.

This unsatisfactorily moralistic portrayal of the future likely comes in part from the difficultly in ending a novel that is built around a lack of traditional narrative structure. The emergence of theme comes partly from this unconventional construction, and therefore becomes somewhat trite when it is more explicitly stated. The futuristic ending, however, is a small portion of the novel, significant only in comparison to the strength of the rest of the narrative. Egan's experimentation with narrative structure is nicely offset with her textual experimentation. Sections like the aforementioned PowerPoint printout call to mind the formal innovation of her metafictional and postmodern predecessors, but where classic metafiction like John Barths' Lost In The Funhouse acts to intentionally confuse and distance the reader, Egan's experimentation does the opposite; her formal experimentation compliments her narrative content, and her strength lies in her realism. A Visit From The Goon Squad is structurally interesting, but in a way that doesn't distract from the story itself. Egan's writing is compelling, witty, and, independent of thematic and structural innovations, strikingly engaging and fun to read.

Posted by at June 2, 2011 01:03 PM
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