Saturday, 20 August 2011

A Year in Books 2011 - A Visit From the Goon Squad


This is the second novel I've read recently that at times feels more like a book of short stories but because short stories tend to sell diddly squat as with the Imperfectionists the publisher is at pains to use the cover blurb to emphasise a linear narrative.

This is a shame as Jennifer Egan's bookis  more than good enough not to need the slightly misleading marketing.

Set around a bunch of characters connected to the music scene the action jumps back of forth across 40+ years and from New York and San Francisco to Naples and South Africa. We see characters in their teens and catch up with them again in their 40s and 50s. They criss cross each others lives as they experience success, personal tragedy , love and failure.

The cover blurb suggests that the novel is about Bernie a record company executive and Sasha his PA and we keep meeting them as their fortunes material and personal ebb and flow. Although they are 2 of the recurring characters they are not alone as this is much more of an ensemble piece.

The shifts back and forth in time , the intersections where lives cross and Egan dropping in short sentences that give you a peak into the future (tradegy, ultimate happiness, disappointment all told matter of factly in a couple of sentences) all mean that the full picture gradually comes into focus. One of the reviews on the cover describe it as a mosaic of a novel and that is a perfect description.

I quickly found myself really caring what happens to these characters and although there is sadness there is also humour and hope and for at least one faded musician his moment in the sun

Egan is also prepared to take risks  one chapter is presented as a series of powerpoint slides and instead of feeling gimmicky, you couldn't imagine it being presented in any other way

It is only the last chapter that jars slightly in that it is set in the near future, only because some of the signposts to this feel unnecessary and get in the way of the characters. It is as if she is trying to force a universal truth about the power of music (not as sickly as it sounds, honest) when there is more than enough small scale observations of wisdom to make this feel a bit redundant.

The book really felt like a breath of fresh air and is the best book of the year so far by some distance

You can buy A Visit From the Goon Squad here where there is also a preview to download

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