Compulsory reads can be a chore but just as often they lead to wonderful discoveries. I’m so glad I’ve been pushed to read American writer Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad (2010), a set text for the first-year fiction unit I’m tutoring this semester. It’s a brilliant novel about youth and middle age, success and failure. It’s spread across a canvas of American characters between the 1970s and 2020s, all of them with some connection (or two degrees of separation) to music publicist Bennie. In the first chapter, focused on Sasha, her friend Rob who drowned in college is mentioned in passing. I thought nothing of it at that point, but chapters later we read his story, this character who is just a sentence in the first chapter. In ways like this the novel gives a sense of the poignancy of all the remembered (and forgotten) people and events in any one’s life. It’s a novel which expands our appreciation of life, going beyond initial viewpoint characters and their present to reveal the past and future and inner lives of other characters. The title might have put me off reading it, but it turns out to be so appropriate – a character reflects midway through that time is a goon who comes along and beats you up. The narrative voice reminds me of Jonathan Franzen; its also the same milieu. The approach itself – linked, self-contained stories – must be emerging as a genre in its own right; off the top of my head, two other works I love have used it – Tim Winton’s The Turning (2005) and Kevin Brockmeier’s The Illumination (2011) – and my friend Laurie Steed has a manuscript which will join this club when it’s published. (I remember some earlier examples – Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles and Thomas M. Disch’s 334, John Updike’s work – but I’m wondering if it’s becoming more common, and also feel there’s an increased element of design and effect of the whole in these recent examples.)
What about the striped bass that made it from the East River into the one the gleaming skyscraper offices of a music executive? This important character often gets overlooked in favor of Lou, Jocelyn, Dolly, etc… The author is clearly channeling The Incredible Mr. Lippert with the newspaper-wrapped striper and the fish is Robert Freeman Jr. circling back to Sasha…or it could be Jesus.
Nathan Hobby said:
I really should have paid more attention to that fish – thanks!
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