Saturday, February 25, 2012

A Visit From The Good Squad

by Jennifer Egan

A couple of years ago, I read a short story in the New Yorker called 'Safari' by Jennifer Egan, and I loved it.  I started watching for Egan's name, and soon found some other stories by her in the New Yorker and Harper's.  Because the stories were sporadic and wide ranging in their subject matter, I didn't notice that some of the character's names overlapped, or that the stories were all chapters from the same piece of work, which became A Visit from the Goon Squad.

This is a great novel, although in many ways, it's more of a collection of interrelated short stories.  Characters recur throughout the book, as different aspects of different peoples' lives are examined in a non-linear fashion.

At the centre of the novel are two people - Bennie Salazar and Sasha Blake (if her maiden name is given in the novel, I've forgotten it).  Bennie ends up being a powerful record producer, although we visit him at different phases in his life, from his time as a teenager struggling to get his band noticed, to his attempt to regain some of his past glory, after being fired from the label he started, and getting divorced.  Sasha was Bennie's assistant for a time, but she is many other things in this book - a thief, a prostitute, a college student, and finally, the mother to autistic children.

Egan also spotlights other characters - the aforementioned Safari is about an older record executive's trip with his new girlfriend and his children to Africa.  This same exec had previously been dating one of Bennie's friends when they were teenagers.  We later see this guy at his deathbed.

Starting each new chapter is a bit of a mystery, as the reader tries to place things in the book's chronology, and figure out how the story is going to connect to the others.  Egan returns again and again to themes of insecurity and powerlessness, as she shows us her take on time periods ranging from the  1970s to the 2020s.  For most of the book, she writes in highly polished prose, but there are sections where she experiments with other forms.  One chapter is written as a magazine article for Vanity Fair (detailing how Bennie's journalist brother-in-law ended up in prison for assaulting a beautiful young actress).  Another is a series of PowerPoint-like slides, which make up the journal of Sasha's twelve-year-old daughter.

Having finished this book, I strongly feel the need to track down more of Egan's work.  She is a very talented author.  This is highly recommended.

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