What is a novel?
Some would argue, on it’s most basic level, that a novel is an extended piece of prose with a protagonist, an antagonist, a source of conflict and a journey of self-discovery, with maybe a satisfying resolution at the end.
This is, of course, as simple an explanation as you can get -but when we take a novel into our hands, when scanning the opening pages or soaking up those first few chapters, many will want to take their first steps into a singular, coherent journey, with characters whom they can relate to and a conflict they can understand.
Which is why, when I hear people calling Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad “a novel,” I get utterly confused. This is because A Visit from the Goon Squad is without doubt one of the most unconventional – and structurally ingenious – pieces of fiction I have ever read.
Bennie Salazar is an aging record executive. Sasha is his young, kleptomaniac secretary. Although Bennie and Sasha never discover each other’s pasts, the reader is invited deep into their troubled pasts, along with the secret lives of a host of other characters. Over many years, all these lives begin to intersect, across locations, careers and even through time itself.
In a breathtaking array of styles ranging from tragedy to Powerpoint, Egan captures the undertow of life’s self-destruction. One which we must overcome or succumb to, be it through choice, fate or through the power and passion of music.
When I first read A Visit from the Goon Squad, I was not sold. The switching between characters each chapter, the somewhat jaded perspective on millennials, the ever-changing conflicts and voices and perspectives; it was so unlike anything that I had ever read, that I was immediately caught off guard.
But when I set the book down and went about my day, I found that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Each character is connected to another, be it tangentially or from their own pasts, and each connection helps to build the world inside of the story. You not only see the world from the eyes of the character of the chapter, but build an understanding of that world beyond the character’s understanding.
It takes dramatic irony – when we, the reading audience, know something that the character does not – and uses it as enlightening perspective for the reader.
After all, we have a habit of believing that we are the main characters of our own lives – that everyone we meet is given meaning through our interactions with them. And that everyone sees the world in the way that we do – judges right from wrong, love and lust, youth and adulthood, with the same measuring stick that we hold in our hands.
A Visit from the Good Squad takes these egotistical notions and blows them out of the water. From the distinct voices of each character, to setting, to even the way certain chapters are structured on the page, Egan is able to create a diverse and engaging narrative. Though it is far removed from the typical novel form (for me, it read more like a collection of interlocking short stories than one coherent narrative), it is nonetheless an intriguing and thought-provoking book.
If you haven’t yet, do pick it up and give it a read. Once you do, you’ll find yourself wrapped up within its narrative threads, long after the final page has been turned.