“Time’s a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?”
It’s hard to pull off a format like A Visit from the Goon Squad‘s, one where you have to introduce a character; establish their personality; give them some kind of meaningful conflict; and then, after all that, force the reader to bid them farewell (forever or for the time being). Somehow, someway, Egan manages to do it all in every single one of her chapters. Honestly, I’ve read entire novels whose character development doesn’t even begin to compare to that of a single chapter of Egan’s. There are so, so many characters in this book, yet none of them ever end up feeling like throwaways. If a character’s name is mentioned in passing, you can bet that they’re going to show up again at one point or another in the novel.
As for the experience of reading this book, there is perhaps one resounding effect that Egan has on the reader with her stories’ format: you are never allowed to be comfortable. Every story starts in medias res; you’re thrown into the midst of a deeply entrenched conflict, a relationship, a state of mind. It’s disorienting at first, stumbling your way through the story, trying to grapple with names and chronology and introspections. But then you get comfortable, acclimate to the story’s circumstances. Smugly sitting on your foundation of understanding of these characters, you start to engage more with the conflict, your interest piquing as the story climaxes—AND THEN THE STORY ENDS. As it began in medias res, so it ends in medias res. There is no tidy resolution, no cathartic play-by-play of the fall out of the conflict. Instead, you get the beginning of a new story, with a new character—who may or may not be connected to the character you just read about—with a different conflict, a different circumstance, a different mindset. Then you get comfortable again—until you’re not. Repeat this process again and again until, lo and behold, the book is over. What. a. reading. experience.
Another thing I want to touch on pertaining to the experience of reading this book is its chronology, or lack thereof. Having finished this novel, my English major mind started churning, trying to decipher its themes and messages. Though I don’t have anything specific to latch onto yet, I can confidently tell you that this book is about the great equalizer: time. And if you’ve read this book, you know that time in it functions like one big puzzle. The stories are not in any way chronologically ordered, which forces you to pay attention to little hints here and there that place the story you’re reading in the vague timeline you’re constructing in your head. This means that sometimes you get characters’ futures before you get their pasts. And an interesting consequence of that is that you start to feel this perverted nostalgia. Yes, you get the traditional kind of nostalgia in this book, the one wherein you longingly look back to a past that was actually—or seemingly—better than the character’s present. But you also get this other nostalgia, one where you try holding onto the present because, as a reader, you already know these characters’ futures, and…they’re not pleasant. Sometimes seemingly cheerful stories are suddenly punctuated with jolting revelations of characters’ grim futures, permeating all their subsequent interactions with this tragic tinge. Everything that happens to them becomes a reaction to their present surroundings, but also a weird premonition of the upheaval that’s in their futures. I think the fact that this book is able to drive home its themes about time not only through its content and its form, but also through the experience it evokes, speaks to just how well-crafted it is.
That being said, as with any book, A Visit from the Goon Squad was not without its flaws. I have 2 specific qualms with this book:
1) Fat-shaming. I’m not tired of fat-shaming, I’m EXHAUSTED. I’m exhausted with the sheer amount of normalized fat-shaming I encounter in media, not just in books. I’ve watched so many shows and movies and read so many books, all of which did representation so well, and then somehow failed to recognize that dehumanizing someone because of their weight is NOT OK. I’ll let the words speak for themselves:
“Nowadays he was huge—from medications, he claimed, both post-cancer and antidepressant—but a glance into his trash can nearly always revealed an empty gallon box of Dreyer’s Rocky Road ice cream. His read hair had devolved into a stringy gray ponytail. An unsuccessful hip replacement had left him with the lurching, belly-hoisting walk of a refrigerator on a hand truck.”
Comparing someone to a “refrigerator on a hand truck”? That’s what we in the business like to call DEHUMANIZING.
2) The power-point chapter. Ah yes, the infamous power-point chapter. So there’s this chapter in this book that’s entirely comprised of a power-point presentation made by a 12 year old, aaaannd…it was just as weird as it sounds. I think this is the one instance in this novel where form and content did not complement each other, but rather just clashed with each other. The weird flow charts and Venn diagrams and other miscellaneous graphs didn’t do anything for me in terms of character development or themes. It just felt out of the blue and pointless for a novel who had already been consistently working with its format so well.
Other than that, I loved A Visit from the Goon Squad. Yes, it’s pretty melancholy, and yes, it’s not the easiest to read, but you get out of it what you put into it. It’s a novel that forces you to effortfully read and try to understand its characters, if only because you have so little time with them. And if you have the patience to do that, then you get to experience a moving collection of introspective, meticulously crafted stories that are independent yet interconnected, short yet powerful.
PS: I think my favourite stories were “Found Objects,” “Safari,” “You (Plural),” “Out of Body,” and “Pure Language.”
PPS: I listened to this on audiobook and the narrator was FANTASTIC. I’d highly recommend it if you’re looking for a good audiobook.