Goon Squad is a dazzling novel, which flips around in time like a dolphin, with a similar degree of grace and look-at-me chutzpah. After having read it, I later discovered that its reputation is already well established. It won its author the Pulitzer Prize and HBO are in talks to turn it into a mini-series.
From Egan’s point of view that’s undoubtedly a good thing. All the same, I’m glad I discovered it without the hype. (Still not all that big in Montevideo, so far as I can tell.) When it came out it was compared directly with Franzen’s Freedom, a book she says, in an interview, she has yet to read; she’ll wait until the hype has died down. Hype compels the reader into taking a standpoint not merely with regard to the novel but also the novel’s reception. (Or the film’s or the song’s etc). For anyone wary of the literary establishment, its approval is a double edged sword. In that context it’s worth knowing that Egan claims to have yomped through years of rejection, that this is no overnight success.
You can see why the book has been struck a chord. It manages to capture an urban overview of the years 1980-2010. The novel is set in New York; San Francisco; a safari in Africa, Naples. But predominantly New York. The fractured narrative (natch) leaps backwards and forwards, riffing like a jazz tune, as it follows first one character then another as they dance through time. Part of the fun of the book is never knowing where you’re going next, whose journey you’re going to be dipping into. The presence or absence of the twin towers is dealt with more effectively and elliptically than in any other work of post-911 literature I’ve come across. These New Yorkers have a frame of reference which is not so very different to a Londoner’s. The music they listen to, the dreams they carry around with them, the disappointments and satisfactions of age. The characters reminded me of people I have known, feelings I have had, none more so than when a group of young New Yorkers find themselves out all night, pushing through to the tragic dawn.
As such, Goon Squad has the feeling of being a touchstone for a generation. It has hints of Pynchon in its sometimes euphoric prose and the name of one of the lead characters, but perhaps more than anything it is reminiscent of another New York novel, albeit one which is on some levels very different, James Baldwin’s Another Country. This comparison perhaps also suggests the book’s Achilles Heel. Where Baldwin’s novel was posited within a radical discourse, Egan’s feels thematically weightless. There is no ‘political’ anchor. (Small P). The final two chapters of the book, both situated in a future where climate change appears to have become an even more dominant issue than it is now, are the first where the novel’s episodic approach starts to feel hollow. These excursions into the what-might-be feel weak in comparison to Egan’s insight into the what-has-been. The resonances of objects; of personal effect and affect as we span the years; this is where the writing feels most vital. The decisions made in adolescence which will shape the span of one’s life for decades.