Much has been made of the structure that author Jennifer Egan employs in her Pulitzer- Prizewinning and Orange-nominated novel A Visit from the Goon Squad. It is true that the narrative is presented in an unique style, Egan mixes first person and third person with a non linear time line and some experimental devices such as a chapter presented in ‘Power Point’ and another in the guise of a journalistic article. This variety served to keep the read fresh for me; some things naturally worked better than others and will appeal to different people in different ways. But it is not, in my opinion, challenging in its format and I found it an effortless, cohesive and fluid read with the structure actually enhancing the content rather than detracting or distracting from it. It allows a deeper, more probing access to the group of characters we meet during the book. We are allowed far into the psyche of some of them, can cross reference their shared experiences and trip back in to their pasts to understand their motivations and attitudes.
During Chapter 4, a third person narrative, we are directly addressed, ‘But we are getting off the subject’. From this point on I was hooked and increasingly aware that getting off the subject we were not. Every detail forms part of a spider’s web of interaction which spreads out from two focal characters, Bennie and Sasha, to include a myriad of equally important characters over a span of some 50 years.
This allows us to journey not only into characters’ past experiences but also into their futures. Some lives are played out over many chapters but what was most appealing, distinctive and brilliant, were the snapshots Egan instantly develops for others. Paragraphs disarm by swift, unexpected movement from the present into the future fate of one or more characters. Not all are happy ever afters but the overwhelming sense this zoom-button device gives is that of the big picture where each of us stands. Not that we are small in the grand scheme. But that we are huge. And that we are in constant motion, even when we cannot see it. Whatever our current situtuation, will it be more than a line in the paragraph of our lives?
The future Egan leaves us with is wholly unappealing but sadly believable. Technology is terrifying, childhood distorted, communication almost soundless and the planet’s ecology in ruins. But in this grand scheme her characters are still living their lives, feeling love, confusion, fear and joy. The spirit of human nature seems unbreakable, within whatever structure you place it.
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Watch this space... three upcoming editor blogs on Seals, Saints & Bardsey as Urban Centre; Indian Poets & Wales; Psychogeography: Latest Novels and Nonfiction by Iain Sinclair, Jim Perrin, Tristan Hughes and Richard Collins