2011 Pulitzer-Prize winner turns the novel on its head
You’ve probably heard the old adage, “If you’re one step ahead of the crowd, you’re a genius. If you’re two steps ahead, you’re an idiot (or insane).”
Jennifer Egan is one-and-a-half steps ahead of the crowd. It explains the mixed reviews she gets—readers either love her books or hate her books. There’s really no middle ground. I do think it’s safe to say the literary “who’s who” loves her, since she recently won the Pulitzer for her latest, A Visit from the Goon Squad.
What kind of book is Goon Squad? A collection of novellas? Linked short stories? Goon Squad consists of 13 pieces that work either as stand-alones (in fact, three of them were published separately in The New Yorker) or as a sculpted, uniform collection of disparate parts. Certainly, the sculpture creates a fuller representation, since an incident merely brushed over in story A will get its due in story B, or C, or D.
A side note, if I may. Egan has mentioned that Pulp Fiction influenced her a great deal while writing Goon Squad. In 1994, when Pulp Fiction burst onto the scene, with its startling nonlinear storyline, punchy dialogue, pop culture references and humor juxtaposed with rank violence, a whole new phenomenon was created—so much so, no one knew quite where to place it. Was it a riff on a black comedy? A film noir? A neo-noir? Who knew a story could be designed this way? Then came 21 Grams and Memento and Inception—smart, fast-paced stories assembled as though a team of architects designed them. Were their creators one step ahead, or two? Or didn’t it matter anymore, because audiences were now prepared for nonlinear, think-outside-the-box storytelling?
You see, the purest astonishment stems from the prototype.
It’s appropriate, I think, to appreciate Egan’s work as a prototype. Her early work—Emerald City, The Invisible Circus, and Look at Me—fits firmly in the literary fiction camp. Certainly we can surmise more than that, but let’s leave our conjecture there for argument’s sake. The Keep? That’s where she broke away. It isn’t that her craft wasn’t up to snuff in the earlier books—on the contrary—but with The Keep she moved beyond craft (writing a stellar gothic thriller) and became an architect. She made the remarkable transition from a good novelist to an “unclassifiable novelist,” executing what seemed to be a literary experiment (and accomplishment).
If you’ll remember The Keep from several years ago, it’s ostensibly a story about two cousins who meet up again, years after one betrayed the other, in an old Eastern European castle. Egan introduces a parallel story early on—that of a convict who’s attending a creative writing class. We discover he’s narrating the story of the two cousins. With these two constructs in place—a family disaster simmering in the wings and a wannabe writer who’s struggling to find the right words—Egan designs a bizarre realm that totters between the real and unreal (think Haruki Murakami). Egan pulls the puppet strings, yanking this way and that, always a step ahead, urging you onward into her dark and chilling world, and yet you’re strangely thankful someone is in charge as the nightmare unfolds. As in Pulp Fiction, the characters ooze unlikeability, yet it is to Egan’s credit you feel their woundedness and wish some relief for them.
Enter Goon Squad. Again, Egan has taken a leap of faith, trusting her audience will follow her, past the old nonlinear stand-bys such as Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, into even newer territory. Whether Goon Squad reminds us of a collection of short stories or a novel-in-stories or a novel just doesn’t matter. It’s a fresh genre-bending form that works. Of the 13 pieces, 11 are short stories, one is a PowerPoint presentation (mesmerizing, to say the least), and the last is a celebrity interview done for a magazine.
Covering a period of about 40 years, the characters’ stories—all entangled, some peripheral—occur nonsequentially. The book begins with Sasha, the sad kleptomaniac and assistant to Bennie, a music industry executive, who spends boatloads of money on gold flakes he sprinkles into his coffee, attempting to quell his shame-based memories. As a teenager, Bennie played in a mediocre band, The Flaming Dildos, with his friend Scotty. Jocelyn, Rhea, and Alice tagged along as devoted groupies. While Scotty clearly possessed more talent, Bennie was taken under the wing of Lou, a pimped-up hawk who, in the meantime, convinced under-aged Jocelyn to follow him to L.A. Lou’s side story—that of taking his two young children and then-mistress on an African safari—portrays Lou imparting his venomous theories about women to his 11-year-old son Rolph.
Fast forward to Bennie growing up and marrying Stephanie, assistant to publicity director La Doll, who miraculously transforms her clients’ reputations overnight. While Stephanie struggles to do her part—to launch the comeback career of an overweight, has-been rock star Bosco—her recently paroled brother Jules attempts to overcome his gone-awry celebrity interview of the starlet Kitty Jackson.
And lest we forget Sasha, poor Sasha, we whip back in time, to Naples, where she worked as a part-time prostitute long before she met Bennie. At her mother’s request, her uncle Ted, an art history professor, flew to Italy to find her. When he succeeded, in a chance encounter, she turned resistant, cool. She wanted to be left alone. Years later, Ted will visit Sasha and her husband Drew and their two children, Alison (the author of the PowerPoint presentation, or slide journal, as she calls it) and Lincoln, in the quiet of the California high desert. In a tragic and wise-beyond-her-years compilation of Venn diagrams, flow charts, and graphs, 12-year-old Alison will strive to make sense of her family’s melancholic relationship and her parents’ lingering grief for the death of a mutual friend. And in the final story, not too long in the future, Alex, the guy Sasha was dating in the first story, reappears. He’s now a husband and father, working as a “parrot” for Bennie. Alex, along with Lulu (the daughter of La Doll, she with the aforementioned publicity skill), employs a coterie of hired people who hype a product or person, whether or not they believe in it. In this case, it’s Bennie’s friend Scotty, whose resurrection as a one-man band for “kids and adults” has electrified New York City.
In a particularly poignant moment at the end of the book—a moment cinching the entire book up like a stringed purse—Alex and Bennie reminisce over their friend Sasha. “I hope she found a good life,” says Bennie. “She deserves it.”
There’s so much to say about the novel, but I’ll focus on the few things I admired most. Egan deftly manages to weave strands of time and music together, using bands to evoke time periods we’re all familiar with. Egan particularly stresses the pauses within the musical scores. The pauses represent life’s pauses—our stops and our starts—what she terms our “not yets.”
Egan creates underdog characters, achingly self-destructive and down-on-their luck. The characters’ personal interactions exude intimacy, and yet they know so little about each other. In other words, they’re more like real-life people or the messy, unpredictable characters in Pulp Fiction than the happy, redeemed-in-the-end Hollywood caricatures required for a movie deal. [Although I’m happy to report that HBO—o brave and cutting-edge network!—has acquired the rights to develop Goon Squad as a half-hour TV series.] If you know anything about writing for TV, you’ll know how difficult it is to get a series noticed. It’s a testament to Egan. She lays out her characters so brilliantly that producers can extrapolate enough material for season after season of on-the-edge-of-your-seat episodes.
Whether Egan is one or two steps ahead of us, one thing is for certain. She’s taken the current novel form and cheerfully turned it on its head. She’s brushed away the cobwebs and dazzled us with new possibilities.
Elissa Elliott is the author of Eve: A Novel. She lives in Minnesota with her husband and daughter.