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A Visit from the Goon Squad
By Jennifer Egan
Alfred A. Knopf
Every year, it seems, the traditional literary industry of big presses and glossy magazines sees a handful of "Next Big Things" that start receiving a ton of publicity long before being disseminated out into the general public, namely because of all these industry insiders who have been gossiping about them among themselves -- the critics who got a copy months before you were allowed to, the editors and marketers who have been dealing with the manuscripts for a year longer than that, the agents and buyers who have dealt with them for a year longer than even that. And that can be wearying, frankly, one of the main things that people now complain about with the mainstream arts, certainly the thing that made me quickly grow tired of the music industry back in the '90s when I was a DJ in college, and on the bottom level of that kind of industry amoeba myself -- that everything seems so foregone anymore when it comes to these industries, a case of jaded intellectuals getting together a couple of years beforehand and deciding exactly what you're going to be liking this coming fall, then spending the resulting two years blowing millions of dollars and thousands of man-hours making sure that this comes true.
So that's why it might seem sometimes that you've seen as much snotty criticism this year as you have glorious praise for the latest novel by Jennifer Egan, an inventive story cycle called A Visit from the Goon Squad, exactly because it was decided long beforehand that it would be one of this year's Next Big Things -- an academically respected author who's been a past recipient of both a Guggenheim and NEA fellowship as well as a National Book Award nomination, yet young and hip enough to have street cred among the litblogger and bar-event crowd (she's forty-something! she's cute! she lives in Brooklyn!), Egan seems almost tailor-made to become the next Michael-Chabon-type crossover literary star; and with her new novel being cleverly structured and among other things partly about New York record-label executives, thus providing plenty of hooks for lazy journalists, it's easy to see why all the stars might align for this particular title at this particular moment in her life.
And indeed, I want to make it very clear that I too found Goon Squad delightful; a witty yet dark-tinged look at the hyper-now human condition, like Tama Janowitz's classic Slaves of New York this is not a traditional novel but rather a series of linked stories that read like one, a sort of Altmanesque collection of fascinating individuals who all have nebulous connections to each other, with each chapter going either backwards or forwards in time and concentrating on just a handful of these people, the other characters for the moment relegated to the background before getting their own chance later to shine. And indeed, if this sounds familiar to CCLaP readers, it's because it's nearly identical in not only structure but setting and tone to one of my favorite novels from last year, Liz Moore's fantastic The Words of Every Song; and I want there to be no mistake, that I found Egan's book just as charming and thought-provoking as that one, a well-written if not sometimes slight slice of life that will keep all my fellow subversives happy from its abundance of strange sex and drug-abuse tales, but that will also please your suburban reality-show-watching sister-in-law because of its humor, fast readability and easy pop-culture references.
But then again, like I said, this is exactly what Moore's book does too, in so similar a fashion that I believe you could mix together chapters from the two and not tell which is which; and really, once you think about it, you come to realize that there are all kinds of books on the market that do exactly this, that our world is in fact filled with cutesy, slightly transgressive, pop-culture-laced looks at the human condition from urban-dwelling Gen-X hipsters with academic cred, and that the mere existence of another does not automatically qualify it for national celebration. And that's why Moore's novel came as such a pleasing surprise last year, while I found myself ultimately disappointed by Egan's, although it's receiving a fairly high score today so to be fair to its actual quality; because the former title was an unexpected bolt out of the blue, a book I picked up randomly one day at the library literally because of its cover, while with Egan's novel I had already heard a thousand times before picking it up how it was the Second Coming Of Jonathan Franzen, making it a letdown when it turned out instead to be merely a well-done but easily predictable airport time-killer.
Like I said, this is the entire reason I chose not to follow so many of my old radio friends into the music industry after college, and the whole reason I try as the owner of CCLaP to maintain as thick a dividing wall as possible between myself and the mainstream literary industry (I read no trade publications, litblogs, or other book reviews); because I'm frankly kind of disgusted by the whole insider circle-jerk aspect of it all, this gatekeeper mentality about how We The Anointed will choose among ourselves the Next Big Thing over ten-dollar cocktails at some insufferable hipster bar several years before you have any say in the matter. It's part of the revolution you're seeing in the arts these days, the downfall of all these former corporate giants and the quick rise of the indies, that rarely gets discussed because of all the other things that are so much easier to point to; that on top of audiences simply getting tired of the inflated costs and hostile attitudes of these big places, they're also getting tired of the arts feeling like some kind of soulless factory, an attitude that really only invaded these industries once you saw the widespread takeover of them by corporate interests starting in the early '80s. The true pleasure in the arts is all about discovery and surprise, not simply being spoon-fed something that's slightly more entertaining to do for a couple of hours than staring at a wall, a nearly intolerable problem by now that Egan's book is unfortunately a victim of through no real fault of its own. That's why I ultimately encourage you to read A Visit from the Goon Squad, precisely because it's a good book that deserves your attention, but why I also encourage you to keep your expectations low going into it, and to not fall victim to the overhype that is so endemic anymore in the corporate-dominated mainstream arts.
Out of 10: 8.5