A couple of years ago, I read an anthology called This is Not Chick Lit. One of the wonderful stories it featured was entitled “Selling the General” by Jennifer Egan. The story was about Dolly, a fallen PR powerhouse, trying to humanize a general who is widely hated for his role in a host of war crimes and mass murders. One of her tricks? Throw a fuzzy blue hat on his head.
A couple of months ago, I read in the New Yorker a short story entitled “Safari” by Jennifer Egan, about two young teenagers, their music executive father and his young PhD candidate girlfriend, among others, on a safari. Ms. Egan’s heart-wrenching use of forward-jumps in time throughout the story prompted several excited email exchanges with friends, as well as an extensive conversation in my writing group about whether I could pull off such a technique in one of my stories. (The verdict was no.)
About ten days ago, I read Ms. Egan’s newest novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad and discovered that both of these stories are actually part of the novel. I was so surprised! Reading them separately, I didn’t have any clues that they were linked in any way, or even that they were a part of something larger–they each worked so well on their own. After finishing the novel, I can say that same sentiment is true for each of the chapters. They are all basically perfect stories that, when strung together, give a larger, fuller picture of the world. You all know that my favorite form of fiction is the collection of linked short stories, so even though A Visit from the Goon Squad is billed as a novel, that’s how I like to think of it.
I guess, though, what makes it a novel is that each story somehow advances our knowledge of one of two characters–Benny, a former-punk record executive, or Sasha, his assistant. We get to inhabit these two characters’ minds for just a chapter each, yet every other chapter is about someone in one or both of their orbits. We see them at different points in their lives and from many different perspectives, from people who care about them, from people who can barely remember them. At the beginning of each chapter, I felt a bit of futile hope that the protagonist would be a repeat–I loved all of the characters so much that I was crushed each time I had to let one go–but would quickly learn to love the new voice, only to be sad again at the end of the chapter. But, hey, I’ll take that kind of all-consuming reading experience any day.
Near the end of the novel, we get a whole chapter from the slideshow, powerpoint-esque diary of Sasha’s daughter. I had this chapter in my mind when a friend recently asked, wrinkling her nose, if this novel was very “post-modern.” I remembered holding the book sideways to read through the slides, following arrows to put together strings of thoughts, parsing charts and graphs. I said, “No.” Of course I was lying a bit, but only a bit, and only because I know my friend will love this book if she gives it a chance.
I mentioned in my last post that I saw Ms. Egan read from this book at the Brooklyn Book Festival on a panel about writing about music. As someone who spends a lot of time surrounded by people in the music world, the vast majority of whom are men (not that I don’t love them), I was really happy to see a woman on this panel, projecting complete ease with herself and her work and her opinions–a total expert. She exhibited these same qualities when she read at our Underwater New York event at Bryant Park, even though the topic at hand was completely different.
I think the lesson to be learned is that, if you have the chance to go see Jennifer Egan read or speak, no matter what the situation, you should go!