Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A Visit from the Goon Squad

I was drawn to read this novel, by Jennifer Egan, because of the excerpt in The New Yorker that featured early 80s punker kids in SF playing in a band and hanging out the Mabuhay Gardens, so maybe I was, in a way, setting myself up for disappointment—that time and place is only a snapshot in this book, in which each chapter is narrated by a different character, from a different location and moment in time. The characters are (surprise!) eventually all interconnected, but, for the most part, they make only cameos in each other’s stories. Reviews I’ve read have praised Egan for the innovation and riskiness of her form, but I found the book too diffuse, too unguided, and thus gimmicky rather than genuinely surprising. Nothing—no emotion, no sense of character—accumulates from one chapter to the next, and thus we’re left with a whole that’s less than the sum of its parts.

By far the strongest chapters are those where Egan is writing about teenagers. There’s an energy to her writing about those SF punkers whose band, The Flaming Dildos, practices in the drummer’s garage in the Sunset; to the perfectly awkward poles of adolescence brother and sister Rolph and Charlie find themselves on during an African safari with their record-producer father; to the beautifully-wrought portrait of a post-suicide-attempt maybe-gay former-football-player-NYU-student taking ecstasy and walking the streets of the Lower East Side all night. That energy allows for a multi-dimensionality of character which is missing from the portrait of the washed-up record producer, the failed publicist, the depressed housewife. Is “energy” too vague a term? Is that just my prejudice toward punk rock and teenagers showing through? Maybe, but it seems to me that that kind of unevenness is a major risk you run when you switch protagonists so frequently, if you don’t have some kind of strong thread tying it all together.

The one chapter in the book that I did find both risky and moving is one that comes near the end. It’s a PowerPoint presentation made by a teenage girl about her family—particularly, her brother, and her brother’s relationship to her father. Her brother is obsessed with charting the “Great Rock and Roll Pauses”—the moments in songs when nothing is happening, when you’re waiting for something to happen. Through pie charts, graphs, and wrenchingly simple sentences, Egan utilizes the Microsoft Office Suite for more emotion than I knew was possible. This is one case in the book where the concept—the form—meets its content as if the two were destined, rather than forced, to be together.

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