Sunday 29 January 2012

A Visit from the Goon Squad

I have a busy reading schedule. I'm reading mainly kids books at the moment, carrying on with my quest to read 1001 Children's Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up. But I want to read all sorts of books. Sadly life gets in the way. Family. Work. Being possibly the slowest reader in the world. Naturally I have a huge TBR, both tangible and figurative. Sometime though a book shoots out of nowhere and becomes the book I have to read next. Reading schedules be damned. An itch that has to be scratched. A Visit from the Goon Squad is exactly such a book.

I'd heard of it of course. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011. I'd seen it in the shops. But I only knew about it in a vague sense. I'd never read a review, and I don't remember anyone on any of the myriad blogs I read reviewing it. If they did it's possible that I ignored the review anyway. The title really didn't appeal to me. Somehow I thought that is was a mafia book or something. Even though the cover art didn't look like a mafia book.

Then one night recently I was home alone and decided to watch an old edition of First Tuesday Bookclub (check out the video, it's well worth it), and I was hooked. I had to read it. I bought it a few days later, and read it when I should have been reading The Wind in the Willows. Thankfully, it's not a mafia book.

It's really quite hard to say what sort of book it is. It's about music certainly, the interconnectedness of our lives, the personal and the political, and time. Time is the titular goon.
'Time's a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?'

There is an extraordinary cast of characters, but the story centres mainly on music executive Bennie Salazar, and Sasha, who is working as Bennie's assistant when we first meet her at the beginning of the novel. It's a broad sweeping novel. An unusual structure it must be said. A challenging multiple point of view, multi-layered work. Thirteen chapters all offering a different narrator, giving us insights into the main characters and those that inhabit their lives- whether briefly, or for the long haul. Many times I found this confusing (and I am generally a fan of the multiple POV), and for the first two or three pages of each chapter you're searching hard for clues trying to work out whose voice it is and when, as the chapters slip back and forward in time too. I started to imagine this book as a heap of threads of coloured wool thrown haphazardly on the floor. It's all connected, it's all joined together, but it takes time to make sense of it.

The two chapters that work the best are the least traditional non-narrative structures. A great one written as a celebrity bio piece by Bennie's brother in law (and is apparently an "uproarious parody of David Foster Wallace", I wish I was well read enough to know that). And very late in the book we have an extraordinary powerpoint presentation style chapter, a slide journal, written by Sasha's daughter. You wouldn't think that would work- but it definitely does. It's really very clever.

But not too clever. Jon Ronson one of the guests on the First Tuesday book club says that it's not annoyingly post modern. I think that's very true. I'm not a fan at all of postmodern styling just for the hell of it. A Visit from the Goon Squad breaks with tradition, and takes some risks, but never tries to annoy the reader. In fact, Egan often ties up loose ends. Early on, she tells us the future of a very minor character. What will happen to him 35 years later.

Thirty five years from now, in 2008, this warrior will be caught in the tribal violence between the Kikuyu and the Luo and will die in a fire. He'll have had four wives and sixty-three grandchildren, one of whom, a boy named Joe, will inherit his lalema: the iron hunting dagger in a leather scabbard now hanging at his side. Joe will go to college at Columbia and study engineering, becoming an expert in visual field robotic technology that detects the slightest hint of irregular movement (the legacy of a childhood spent scanning the grass for lions). He'll marry an American named Lulu and remain in New York, where he'll invent a scanning device that becomes standard issue for crowd security. 

It's funny the detail of that passage stayed with me, and it's only now, when looking it up again, that I see the significance to the story! It's more clever than I realised. And every review I read is only making me want to reread. If only I had time to go back and read it again.  I don't feel compelled to do that immediately, as I did with The Road (and the Wind in the Willows is still waiting). But this is definitely a book that would reward rereading.


Satia said...

Obviously this book has been a blip on my radar but I've not read any reviews that I can recall. After skimming yours, I am hooked. That's right, I said "skim" because I was afraid to learn too much about the plot. I want to go into it with as much of a blind eye as possible. So now I'm adding it to my list; you know the "list" . . . that never ending TBR list.

Louise said...

The plot here is so broad, and hard to describe that it's best approached in generalities I think. I try not to give too much away either. I want you to be interested, but not know everything about the book before you start. I hate reading spoilers in reviews too, so try to avoid them.

Jackie McGuinness said...

Thanks for dropping by and commenting on my Egypt photos.
What you said is so true, you expect the pyramids to be in the middle of nowhere and instead they are practically in the city!!

Kath Lockett said...

I've heard of it, but am now going to add it to my list. An ever-growing, now slightly intimidatingly long list!

Genie -- Paris and Beyond said...

Chère Louise, you are quite the imp with your book temptations. This one just jumped up my list. Mercy, mon amie! I will just have to work out longer at the gym to get to all the books!


Susan said...

I've kept this one off my list mainly because the list is too long already and the title didn't grab me. I didn't have any idea what the book was about and tried to avoid knowing because I'm too far behind already with my reading. But now, I'm caught. I'll have to read it after all. Very nice review!

Louise said...

Kath- the lists are always too long. I'll be interested to hear what you think if you get to it.

Genie- clever you listening to audiobooks at the gym. I only tend to listen to nonfiction audiobooks- my attention wanders if I try fiction.

Susan- Thanks. The title is a problem I think- it kept me away from it for a long time too. Being behind in your reading is normal. I hope you get to reading it, and enjoy it too.