I just finished reading Jennifer Egan’s brilliant novel/short story collection, A Visit From the Goon Squad. To be honest, I’ve been left dumbstruck by how great it is. I’ve spent the last twenty minutes pacing around my house, thinking about the book - I’m sure my neighbors are wondering what is going on over at the Jacobs household. Part of me wishes one of them would come over, I would drag them in the front door before they even had a chance to ring the doorbell, sit them down on my leather couch and unleash and explain to them how brilliant a work of fiction Goon Squad is. I’d tell them that in this one book there is everything that is beautiful and life affirming about the art form. I would try to find the right combination of words to eloquently express how this book has affected me on a deep - as in seven stories underground, double reinforced concrete, bomb shelter - level of my being, but I would probably just end up sounding like an insane person. I can see the blank stares on their faces that are silently screaming, “Please don’t kill me! Please don’t bury my remains under your back porch!”
It’s funny how life works. I spent most of the day cleaning around the house, the entire time thinking that I would have absolutely nothing to write about today, picturing other writers doing menial tasks around their own homes. Just imagining Hemingway wandering around his Paris apartment wearing a smock, swifter in hand, is enough to make me giggle. Throughout the day I was taking little breaks to read a chapter or two from Goon Squad, until it got to the point where I had to put the books down if I wanted to get any real work done. After I finished dinner, I grabbed a drink from the fringe, wrapped myself up in my favorite blanket and binge read the second half of the book. It was one of the more powerful reading experiences I’ve ever had.
The stories Egan has crafted hit me with the power and skilled precision of professional boxer. There is a dizzying display of genius at work in these stories, and in the way they all interlock with each other. You are introduced to a couple of characters in the first chapter, and every proceeding chapter pulls back the camera to reveal other characters who are in some connected to characters we’ve met in previous chapters. Every chapter has its own self contained narrative arch, but there is an overall arch that is very consistent with what you would expect out of novel. The structure made for a wholly unique reading experience for me.
So what is Goon Squad about? I’ve been wracking my brain to find a clean plot description for everything Egan has packed into this one work. The backbone of these stories is Rock and Roll - it’s about people who play music, people who work in the music business, children of people who play in bands and run record companies - all of the characters in this book have had their lives shaped in some way by music. To be clear, this is a book about people lives, and not about the actual making of music. Most of the stories are told without a single instrument being played. In my opinion the best chapters have next to nothing to do with music, no instruments are being played the characters, no albums are being sold.
My favorite story in the book is about a man who goes to Naples to find his runaway niece. Here is a man who is unsure of his love towards his wife. He is an art history teacher who is looking back at his life with regret. He is Italy because his nieces separated parents have paid him to find their daughter. The daughter, Sasha, has run away before. She grew up in a hostile domestic environment and has spent her late teens bouncing around continents, from new life to new life. The uncle, as it turns out has spent days in Naples actively not searching for the niece. In many ways he is just as lost as Sasha. He, the art history major in a time of self crisis, spends a day going to see the statue of Orpheus and Eurydice, and is so moved by the piece that he ends up wandering the streets of Naples in a stupor, eventually bumping into Sasha by accident. The story cuts to an earlier time when the uncle recalls taking Sasha swimming in Lake Michigan when she was a small child, and how she would grab onto him as they went into the water, holding onto him for dear life. This leads back to two characters in the current setting, and there is a moment that created such a visceral, empathetic response out of me that I had to put the book down and get a glass of water before I could keep reading. It was like being punched in the gut. This has only happened to me a few times in my life, to be moved by art so beautifully and expertly executed that it was almost too much bear.
Egan has lovingly crafted a group of people who live in a world of consequences, and with every new person introduced that world expands. By the end of the book it feels like every character has had a chance to tell their story. It’s amazing just how much I ended up caring about all of the people in this book, it would have been so easy for a character or two to have ended up feeling a little flat, but Egan doesn’t let that happen, she puts writes her characters to be imperfect and unpredictable and sets them in motion. We get to see how the poor decisions of a father has affected his children. We see how these people cope with death. We see these characters live down decisions they’ve made. We are given first hand looks at how families and friendships evolve, and sometimes deteriorate, over time. Egan isn’t concerned with making judgements about characters decisions in the book, she is simply interested in pointing out the constellation of reactions that spawn from every action. It’s so easy to lose track of the web of personal connections that constitutes our lives, and how we make - or don’t make - decisions everyday that affects lives of people we love the most. A Visit from the Goon Squad is a reminder that life is a beautiful, tangled mess of connections and missed connections. There is an emotional resonance here that I have found in few other works of fiction.
In the past two weeks I have read this novel and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, two books in which the authors wring every last bit of emotionally juice out of their talents. These are two books that I would recommend to anyone who has felt jaded about their lives. I’m at a point in my life where I needed to read books that are as bold and heartfelt as these. There is so much courage and vulnerability in these works. It’s books like these that make me feel OK about going to places in my own writing that I would have never attempted to reach in the past, and for that I will always be grateful for writers like Egan and Diaz.