A Visit from the Goon Squad
I don’t know why, but I’ve been having a heck of a time getting started on this post, causing a sequence of other post to go unwritten. I had it sketched in my head two weeks ago, but I was too busy reading the book to stop and write it. With each passing day, my sense of urgency drops. Let’s see what I can do.
I have to backtrack a bit. In December 2010, the NYT listed Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad as one of the year’s five best works of fiction, prompting me to add it to my list of books to read. (I passed on the other four.) In January 2011, I almost bought the Kindle version. But, as I wrote in a March 2011 post about the purchase of my then-new third-generation Kindle, I was
warned by an Amazon reader review that this would be a big mistake. The reviewer explained that there are chapters written in Powerpoint, and that these “chapters are extremely difficult to read on the Kindle. The print is so small and the back grounds so dark that even a magnifying glass was little help. The font size selection feature on the Kindle did not work on the ‘slides’ for those chapters.” As it turns out, the novel comes out in paperback in two weeks, and at a lower price than the Kindle price, so I’ll order the paperback edition.
I did order the paperback. It came. And it was awful. As a physical object that is, not as a work of literature. Judgement on that would have to wait.
You can see part of the problem in the picture above. The front cover is not as wide as the rest of the book, having been designed to reveal that idiotic NYT best book announcement, which sits on the first inside page. Below the announcement on that page are quotes about how great the book is. More annoying, the front and back covers and the spine have a creepy texture that makes the mere act of holding the book unpleasant. I couldn’t imagine how I was going to survive reading it.
A month later, Goon Squad received the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Not that that makes it any better a book, but the award suggested I would enjoy it.
One evening, I read the first chapter, and I had my doubts. We quickly learn that the chapter’s featured character, a quirky young woman, has a behavioral problem, one we watch her struggle with. I had no understanding yet of the book’s organizational structure, but I wasn’t convinced I wanted to spend several hundred pages in her company. Plus, holding the book was torture.
There was an obvious solution to the physical problem: buy the Kindle version, turning only to the print version to read the powerpoint pages. If the book is that good, buying it twice would be worth the cost. However, I couldn’t bring myself to pay twice. Nor, for over a year, could I bring myself to pick up the physical book again.
That’s how matters stood two and a half weeks ago, when I finished Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding. I had other books in the queue, but I regretted letting Goon Squad go unread for so long. Perhaps the time had come for a return visit.
Oh, one more point. I happened to learn a couple of months ago, I don’t remember where, that Goon Squad‘s powerpoint chapter is available — as a slideshow — at Jennifer Egan’s website. Plus, there’s a special edition iPad version. Boy did I ever up! I never needed the physical book. I would have done better going electronic, especially because some of the slides have audio, unavailable (obviously) in the physical book.
Well, anyway, I decided I would read the physical book up to the slideshow, which turns out to be the penultimate chapter, then watch it at Egan’s website, then read the final chapter in the book.
There was still the issue of the awful texture. What to do? Something I’ve never done before. I tore the front and back covers off. I don’t usually treat books as disposable. But with this one, who cares? It’s better read electronically in any case.
On re-reading the first chapter, I didn’t find the featured character so disturbing anymore. Then I discovered that the second chapter focused on an entirely different character, at a different time. And the third chapter still another character, at a still-different time. Each character related directly or tangentially to the previous ones. The book’s structure had become clear. Moreover, as the first chapter’s disturbing character emerged as incidental in later chapters, she grew beguilingly charming and I longed for a fuller account.
I don’t think I’ll be giving too much away if I explain that the slideshow turns out to be the e-journal of the beguiling woman’s twelve-year-old daughter, the time now being a few years in the future. Rather than keeping a traditional diary, the daughter records her thoughts in slides, with text embedded in diagrams of various shapes and colors, and with music added on occasion. It’s brilliantly done. The daughter comes alive, leaving you hoping for more, much more.
There’s one last surprise, which I should have seen coming. To the extent that it’s a surprise, maybe I should say no more. Well, it’s not about the plot or characters, just the structure. I’ll put it in the next paragraph, which you can skip if you prefer.
The last chapter introduces a character we haven’t seen since the first one. As you finish it, you realize it leads you in a circle back to the first chapter. Indeed, inasmuch as the book has a circular rather than linear structure, one closes it with the realization that any chapter can serve equally well as the opening. I believe so anyway. I can’t really run the experiment in any sensible way.
A fabulous book. I never should have waited so long. If you’re of a mind to read it, whatever format you choose, just make sure to turn to a computer for the slideshow.