Q: When does a series of short stories become a novel?: A When it is A Visit From the Goon Squad.
First of all, let me be very clear: I love, love, love this book! In the same way that Robert Altman introduced us to the residents of LA in his 1993 film Short Cuts, in the same way that Paul Thomas Anderson introduced us to the residents of the San Fernando Valley in his 1999 film Magnolia, Jennifer Egan provides us with an ensemble of interconnecting characters from New York. And then she fucks with the rules of writing.
Take this extract from a recent review of one of my manuscripts: After the opening chapter, you zig zag backwards and forwards in the timeline. I found this very disconcerting as it prevented me from being fully immersed in they the story. Each time I began to feel involved, I would be jerked away to a different time and place, requiring me to access a different set of emotional responses. An author needs to have a good reason to distort the timeline. This would have Jennifer Egan laughing out loud. She understands that memory does not work in strict chronological order.
I would love to know the starting point. Did she cover the wall of her study with a vast Venn Diagram, or did she craft each story, one at a time, and then think, Oh, I know where I’ll go next? The result is a Christmas-Carol type vision of past, present and future, but with none of the judgement. We join her characters at pivotal moments, at seemingly random moments, at breakthrough moments, at moments of discovery, at moments of loss, betrayal and despair and, just as we are getting inside their heads, we abandon them under similar circumstances. Jennifer Egan accepts that sometimes we are magnificent, sometimes outside influences makes us behave in ways that we don’t understand, sometimes life takes strange twists and turns and sometimes, well sometimes we just screw up. All manner of life is here in abundance, and every time I meet a ‘new’ character, I feel that I know them. Often this is because they have made a previous appearance – as a child, as someone else’s lover, an ex-boss perhaps. Usually it is just because the characterisation is spot-on. I love the fact that, at the beginning of each new scene I am forced to think who am I? How old am I? How do I fit in? I love the fact that the author credits me with the intelligence to do so.
And because the structure is not linear – because it spirals – because we are dipping in and out of people’s lives – I can now head straight back to the beginning and start all over again.
Sometimes, it seems that the only constant is the city. But even the city is changing.
NB: Several reviews on Amazon say do not buy Goon Squad on Kindle as the chapter with graphics does not work.