Friday, October 14, 2011

Too Good to be True


Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad is an organism constructed from completely disparate bits and pieces.  Moments most other writers would edit away are taken into the laboratory and turned into voluptuous Frankenstein fantasias:  its aesthetic can be located on an imaginary scatterplot documenting the exact location where John Barth has stopped trying so hard and Joyce Carol Oates has stopped taking her meds.  Each chapter has a new voice extolling the banal yet somehow significant (and oddly nostalgic) experiences of characters you barely get to know, and yet love and take into your soul almost instantaneously.  Passers-by become central figures, the periphery the focus.  And in these fringes Egan finds an apoplectic and apologetic record producer and his klepto assistant bumping into people and falling into their lives; each bump (like cocaine) creates a new way to reinvent the novel's plot. 

What could be seen as gimmickry transforms into bliss.  Your heart aches with each sadsack yet somehow triumphantly alive character:  a once top-notch NYC publicist in sad decline, a beefy closeted gay college student about to find a way to completely ruin his own life, a Lindsay-Lohanesque starlet about to be disappeared, a bipolar journalist trying to reinvent the reason he is what he is.  And so on.  The writing never gets in the way:  it whispers/hisses/mumbles like a voice climbing out of your head but not through your mouth.  There's even a chapter done completely as a Power Point presentation from the future.

"Something was funny a while ago," Egan writes in one chapter.  "But you can't remember what."  Goon Squad is about laughter in the face of amnesia and laughter in the face of memory:  it merges the two into a slightly uncomfortable yet completely exquisite dreamworld where no one is important and yet everyone is.  It's like one of those long, boring, beautiful Andy Warhol movies edited into coherence and transformed into a glamorous, hellish TV miniseries from 1982 that never aired because it was too incredibly strange, too good to be true.