My name is Doug Wykstra, and this is some of the stuff I've read and watched.
Jennifer Egan’s novel A Visit from the Goon Squad is a formalist experiment that leads you to realize new things about the nature of the novel and short story, and how the two can complement each other and solve some of the biggest challenges of each. By creating a short story collection that follows characters that recur from story to story, even as the plots and POV characters vary wildly, Egan combines the panoramic scope of the novel with the condensed specificity of the short story.
One reason I have such a hard time getting through short story collections is because each story and group of characters has to hook me, and once it does, it’s hard to get hooked on the next group of characters to come along. A Visit from the Goon Squad solves this by having the same characters pop up in each story, albeit in wildly different contexts. I start reading the story because I want to know more about recurring characters like Sasha and Benny, and the connective tissue their presence provides allows me to ease into the main plot a little more.
Likewise, modern novels can frequently bog down in the middle for a lot of readers. Not being published serially in the way 19th-century novels usually were, the author doesn’t have to keep inventing incidents and revelations that keep people subscribing, and therefore has a little more leeway to be indulgent. This has led to a lot of great experimental and introspective literature; it has also led to a lot of books that don’t really have anything happen for 200 pages or so. But by making each chapter work as a standalone short story, complete with a beginning, middle, and end, A Visit from the Goon Squad kept me interested in the story throughout.
This might sound like Jennifer Egan has found a “hack” that allowed her to create an interesting and engaging book much more easily than most novels or short story collections manage, but nothing could be farther from the truth: this must have been hideously difficult. Each chapter has to work on its own as a story, while incorporating the greater meta-narrative of the novel, while not incorporating so much of it that the short stories bog down. On a plain level of narrative engineering, this is an amazing feat.
Egan takes it to another level by making her book a referendum on the 21st-century short story. She changes styles from book to book, so one story might be a University-of-Iowa-inflected piece of suburban ennui, while another is a DFW parody, a footnote-infested scrawl of a pathetic and depressive white male, while another is a lightly satirical foreign adventure story, while a fourth is a coming-of-age story of aimless and rebellious children who grow up too fast. To read this is to read a referendum on the genre as it existed in 2010, and the way Egan fluently shifts from style to style is another instance of her writing appearing effortless through what must have been an insane amount of work.
The nature of all this engineering means that it’s hard to talk about this in terms of plot. There’s a fair amount about the evolution of the music industry over the second half of the 20th century, a good number of pages about what it takes to live in New York City, at least 4 chapters/stories about men suffering through what appear to be mental breakdowns, and some light speculative fiction in the book’s last chapters, as they move into the near future. But it’s really about getting to know some people, and seeing what happens to them, and learning why it’s important. Which, I guess, is the plot of every novel.
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