Monday, June 07, 2010

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

A Visit from the Goon Squad
by Jennifer Egan
(Knopf, June 9, 2010)

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Reading this book was a little like starting a conversation out of general politeness, and discovering that you're talking to someone you passionately want for a best friend.

Jennifer Egan -- full disclosure -- is a friend and customer of Greenlight Bookstore. I'd hosted her before for events at other stores, and chatted with her and her kids at Greenlight, but to my own detriment I had never actually read any of her fiction. (Even though, as often seems to happen, it seems in retrospect like obviously the sort of thing I would like: the smart but not overtly political feminism of Look At Me, the Gothic nested stories of The Keep, etc. -- good storytelling in the service of big ideas, or vice versa, without sacrificing the one for the other.) It seemed like now would be the time to pick her up, though, since we're hosting her launch party for the book on Wednesday. So I opened the intriguingly titled A Visit From the Goon Squad earlier this spring.

And found a new addition to my personal author pantheon.

As I wrote for our recent staff picks email, A Visit From the Goon Squad is ostensibly (and quite effectively) about the world of rock music, and the intersections of the realms of commerce and creativity (and the dysfunctional folks who inhabit both). But it's really about life on Earth, in all its heartbreaking and maddening and rich and loveable complexity. It's about the mistakes of each generation, about being young and growing up, about adventure and domesticity, about interconnectivity and isolation, and (especially) about the brutality and kindnesses of time.

And it doesn't hurt that it is structured in my favorite form: the novel as interlinked stories (cf. my pantheon authors David Mitchell, Charles Baxter, Joan Silber, and others). Some of those were published in the New Yorker -- trust me that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, though each story has its own poignant and complete miniature arc. One of them perfectly evokes being a young and foolish professional woman in New York City (ahem). One is written flawlessly from the perspective of a very young gay man, one about a record exec, several about the intersections of children who have grown up too fast and adults who are not very grown-up at all. One is composed of a series of PowerPoint slides and is alarmingly literate and moving. San Francisco, Italy, and Arizona make appearances, as do the 1970s, the 1990s, and a near-future that is the most believable I think I've ever read (wait till you learn what a "pointer" is). The meaning of the title is illusive, but when it hit me it hit hard, and shaped my understanding of the project of the novel in the way the best titles can do.

And did I mention the damn thing is funny, too? Apparently Jennifer Egan is one of those rare authors who can quite literally do anything.

I have already seen Jennifer post-Goon Squad reading, and gotten out of the way my mumbled fangirl admiration. Luckily she seems as delighted at how it came out as her readers will, and is in fact the sort of kind and smart and idealistic and charming author that you hope to find at the other end of your favorite novels.

So, obviously, go out first thing tomorrow morning when it goes on sale and get yourself a copy of A Visit From the Goon Squad. Then, come out on Wednesday night and drink wine with the author. If these heights of happiness are not feasible for you, just get your hands on the book as soon as you can, and then find me so we can talk about it. In the meantime, I'm going to need to go back and read everything Jennifer Egan has ever written.