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Jennifer Egan
A Visit From the Goon Squad
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2010

Alfred A. Knopf / Random House
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-0-307-59283-5
Publication Date: 06-08-2010
288 pages; $26.95
Date Reviewed: 06-28-2010

Index:  General Fiction  Science Fiction

In the post-pulp era, the novel's psyche was splintered into a variety of genres. All the sorts of fiction that used to be simply "novels" were now relegated to types of novels. The origins of the novel as a genre itself were lost in a blizzard of increasing derivations, photocopies of photocopies. Now, anything that steps beyond first-person singular or third-person omniscient narration is tagged as experimental, ignoring the rich heritage of experimentation that produced what we now call "novels" in the first place.

But on a reading level, it's all about the novelistic reading experience. And by that measure, Jennifer Egan's 'A Visit from the Goon Squad' is superb novelistic reading experience. Egan manages to use pretty much everything in the writer's toolkit — genre, perspective, even advanced (and generally abused) literary technology, in this case, PowerPoint — to create an engaging, involving story about single group of people we come to care deeply, and who manage to offer us a fresh perspective on our own lives. This is what the novel was always mean to accomplish. Egan's command of the rules is so firm she can break them with utter impunity.

'A Visit from the Goon Squad' is first and foremost, fun and startlingly engaging to read. We start in very familiar territory. Sasha is talking to her therapist about her problem with stealing. Like a crow, she's accumulated a stash of artifacts that bring back memories of different periods of her life. Each object represents something utterly different from those around it. When her session ends, we find ourselves with Bennie, her one-time employer. He was once the punk rock promoter who guided some decent bands to popularity. The ties between the two segments are intricate and personal, but also abstract and tantalizing. As the next chapter unfolds, we somewhere else, with someone else. But by then, the connections have been made.

Egan's novel is a brilliantly entertaining riff on memory, time, art and how humans connect at every level; family, friends, predators and (sometimes willing) prey, through art, commerce, music, technology, sex, love and friendship. She sort of follows the lives of Sasha and Bennie, but follows them via a funhouse mirror that leads her to the past, the present and even the future. Every subsequent chapter employs a new literary perspective, a new character perspective and a new literary technique. It's as if the novel itself has become a four-dimensional tesseract, and Egan has unfolded the cubes.

In the hands of a lesser talent, such a device could seem both heavy-handed and confusingly annoying. But Egan turns it into a delightful literary mystery — a mystery in which the very story being told has been torn loose from the standard issue timeline and re-folded into a gorgeous, moving and often very funny origami. Readers willing to divorce themselves from kitchen-window epiphanies and thrill-a-minute explosions that plod from A to B will find plenty of thrills and more startling epiphanies in Egan's entertaining re-discovery of the novel form. In its earliest incarnations, the novel knew no limits. Writers were simply trying to tell story using every literary tool they could lay their hands on. Egan follows suit with greatly entertaining and striking success.

Egan certainly has a natural talent for speculative fiction. Portions of 'A Visit from the Goon Squad' are evocative stories set in the near future; one notable chapter is written in PowerPoint. Each segment is strong enough to stand on its own — and Egan has even published the PowerPoint story online. But don't make the mistake of thinking of 'A Visit from the Goon Squad' as a series of short stories. The great success here is in the entirety of the reading experience, from beginning to end. This is a novel not unlike others you have read, and yet it is entirely unlike any other than has ever been written.

At the core of the technical brilliance on display here — generously used to make the reading experience both more entertaining and poignant — is a writer telling readers a story about people, and as well about themselves. Egan's funhouse mirror is easily turned on the reader's lives. For all the playing with time here, all the literary pyrotechnics that rival any orchestrated display of fireworks, Egan is, in the final analysis, pursuing reality as we experience it in our own lives. No matter how many novels we read that start at the beginning and end at the end, we are unable to organize our own lives in this manner. Our memories do not start with our first scream in the world and end with our last breath. 'A Visit from the Goon Squad' is easy and enjoyable to read not just because it is a bold departure from most novels, but because it is a perfect reflection of how we experience the broken shards that mirror our own lives.

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