by Jennifer Egan
336 pages, Corsair
Review by Marc Nash
Even though I wasn't on the Pulitzer Committee this year, I would heartily concur with their judgment to award A Visit From the Goon Squad their prize for fiction. You just know from the first ten pages that you're going to be in for a treat, and the novel never flagged, never failed to deliver even within its tricky and tricksy structure. The novel almost reads like a la Ronde, as the two main characters of Independent record mogul Bennie Salazar and his PA Sasha are connected to each of the other characters who are granted centre stage for each chapter. Though the novel nips back and forth between three generations, with characters reappearing or being alluded to in an earlier incarnation from when they were introduced to us, the reader doesn't require a power point document to keep a grip of them. Which is just as well, for Egan provides a daring chapter in a power point style and you know what? It really works too.
Each chapter works as a short story in itself. The fare is the normal human stuff, of loves, both thwarted and consummated; of foibles and missed opportunities; of starting over and reinventions. But each voice is amazingly distinct and the writing effortlessly lush and incisive. In the first story, Sasha is struggling with her kleptomania while out on a date. The tensions within her as she fights the impulse and throws her therapist's counseling against the impulses, are matched by the events themselves. There is a story set against the backdrop of an African safari with wonderfully drawn intersections of relationships between people gathered together in a strange environment.
America seems always concerned with who is writing the next "American" novel in the wake of Roth and Delillo's epic works. Egan's characters, based around a rock and roll milieu, may just be too subcultural to represent the whole of the nation, but it is instructive that what starts out in youthful rebellion, pose, energy and thrill, ends up commercialised and marketed to children. The book is a sly and clever take on the defanging of ideals and ideas. The power point chapter and the final chapter tilt at language itself. The power point works so well, because the child utilising it employs power point graphic speech bubbles and arrows of directionality to represent (and inevitably simplify) her feelings and web of connections to other people. The final chapter, set in a notional near future, sees language further stripped down, through marketing buzz words annexing the power from words that used to hold true charge and meaning "English was full of these empty words - 'friend', and 'real' and 'story' and 'change'. And thus does Egan delightfully subvert her own rich arts demonstrated so expertly through the preceding chapters. The final guillotine stroke is the centrality of a future version of txt spk, which strips words down to just their basal phoneme letters. A book so rich in metaphor and turn of phrase, ending up with a language that can embody neither.