A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
This set of linked short stories follows a set of characters who are loosely connected through their ties to particular bands, musicians and their recording and publishing people. One of my favorite parts of the book was seeing characters recur unexpectedly and finding seemingly tangential connections between the stories, which even come full circle at the end.
There are some interesting style quirks here. The second-to-last story, told by a child narrator in the near future, is told in powerpoint-like slides with visual elements, what we teachers might call “graphic organizers” (click the link on the book above and you can see it in full color with musical accompaniment). One hilarious footnote-heavy story with a great use of voice consists of a failed reporter’s account of the lunch meeting with a starlet that ended with his attempting to rape her in Central Park. That description makes the story sound much more serious than it is–it’s an apology, a justification, a self-excoriating account of romantic and literary failure, a send-up of celebrity culture. There’s a story of college kids drinking and partying, with disastrous consequences, told in second person. A few of the stories are set in the near future, full of text-speak and iphone-like gadgets that a young parent tries to keep from the hands of his baby. Feels pretty realistic to me. Even in the more traditional stories, strong sentences and startling details make the prose a joy, even when it’s sad. Here’s my favorite example:
“many years ago, he had taken the passion he felt for Susan and folded it in half, so he no longer had a drowning, helpless feeling when he glimpsed her beside him in bed: her ropy arms and soft, generous ass. Then he’d folded it in half again, so when he felt desire for Susan, it no longer brought with it an edgy terror of never being satisfied. Then in half again, so that feeling desire entailed no immediate need to act. Then in half again, so he hardly felt it. His desire was so small in the end that Ted could slip it inside his desk or a pocket and forget about it, and this gave him a feeling of safety and accomplishment, of having dismantled a perilous apparatus that might have crushed them both” (158).
Egan won the Pulitzer for this novel, and it seems deserved. Her unique structure of linked stories spread over about forty years allows her to show how time changes her characters for the better and worse, creating contrasts that are all the stronger from leaping decades.