So you like contemporary prize-winning fiction? You like a protean, twisting narrative delivered by multiple narrators separated in time and space? You like multi-generational immigrant epics centering on so-hot-right now obscure and sometimes not currently extant far flung hellholes? You like some sci-fi genre fuckery? Well you’ll get at least 80% of your fix from Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. This is not to say this book doesn’t show chops and imagination, and that it isn’t better than the conceptually shit hot but deeply flawed Cloud Atlas and the deeply and unremittingly flawed Everything Matters! and the basically dead in the water (but still perversely enjoyable) The Four Fingers of Death. But I read this 300-odd page novel in two sittings. I can’t respect a book that lets me do that. I need something that puts up a fight, bores or disgusts or confounds me a little. But Goon Squad was buttery smooth from word one.
You’ve probably heard by now about that weird chapter and it is indeed the best part of the book. Hilarious, touching, inventive etc. Manages to capture a near-future family psychodrama with pretty meager tools. But aside from this segment, I was a little disappointed by the way in which the book (and many of its cohort of zippy, topical new novels) describes the new phase in human relations brought about by social networking without embodying it. Children are now being raised inside a virtual medium but we’re reading about it in the same coherent, capable prose we’ve been mega-speed-reading our way through for the last 50 years (at least)?
It’s unfair of course because I’m down on Goon Squad for being a good book and not a fault line in the way we read and live and think about our time. This is powerful writing of a familiar bent, and that’s not bad. But I do think it’s too molded to the modern reader’s digestive tract. Strangely, the chapter most superficially adapted to quick and frictionless understanding is the one that demands the closest (and slowest) scrutiny. This is what we need. Writing in tension with its own posterity, which interrogates the way we are emotionally affected in the context of a medium that makes it too easy. You can log on to any website and find a story far removed from your own experience that will move you. Little gel caps of pathos. What does it mean that we don’t have to wait for the new Dickens installment to get that fix?