[xrr rating=1.75/5] Having received comparisons to Joyce and Proust, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad perhaps suffers unfairly under the weight of expectations. A post-postmodern menagerie of tales, Egan’s book prompted a debate as to whether it was a novel or a short story collection. It’s a ridiculous, inane contention for many reasons, not least of which that A Visit from the Goon Squad is not a successful example of either category.

Most closely resembling Joyce’s Dubliners, with its collection of fragmented stories fitting together under a linking theme, A Visit from the Goon Squad seeks to comment on human relations in the digital age by leaping around time to cover the interconnected lives of listless Gen-Xers and advanced but emotionally stunted Millennials. But in embodying the post-Internet generation’s attention deficiency, Egan never allows momentum to build, nor does she connect the dots between the stories in any meaningful way outside of the “coincidence” of character relations.

The characters generally link up around music, whether they create it, market it, or just listen to it. As such, Egan structures her social critique of pre- and post-9/11 America around the most visible corporate casualty of the digital era, constantly juxtaposing the current music scene, where even unknown bands have access to overprocessed production values, with the underground rawness of the ‘80s. Yet her pokes at the music industry only expose the larger problem with her broader criticisms: Egan’s a terrible satirist. An able comic writer when it comes to mere absurdity, Egan falls down when she ties the humor to a point, belaboring the message underneath the humor until the punchlines lose their bite. Great satire, however textually embedded in its subject matter, is made by those who can stand outside a culture to analyze its absurdities. Egan cannot extricate herself from her world, leaving pat cynicism as her only weapon against it.

Take Sasha, the first character we meet in Egan’s contrived web. As we sort out her life from flashbacks and flash-forwards, Sasha emerges as a broken human being only half-repaired by middle-age. A childhood of abuse leads to a repulsive young adulthood in Europe, and the accidental death of a friend only leaves her more listless back in America. And when we meet her later in life, the modicum of happiness she’s eked out with a family is compromised by her anxieties and ghosts. Egan is smart enough to understand that America’s decline was catalyzed by 9/11, not begun with it, but her elegy is so steeped in misery it myopically limits her intricate layering of events and characters into a game.

As a prose stylist, Egan never matches her ambition of using different techniques for each chapter. Her idea of a major shift is to switch between first, third and even second-person perspectives, and the chapters where she truly does alter her writing are abysmal. One chapter apes celebrity journalism and David Foster Wallace, capturing the tone and language of neither. The final chapter dips into laughable sci-fi in describing a vaguely dystopian near-future where, yet again, a glimmer of hope is eradicated. Strange, then, that the most gimmicky chapter, the much-ballyhooed PowerPoint episode, is the book’s highlight, a detached series of thought fragments that establishes character dynamics, emotions, dreams and setbacks better than any other part of the novel. Yet that same emotional focus separates the chapter from the rest of the episodes as much as the radically different writing.

In presenting her cast of characters as indicative of contemporary America, Egan makes the mistake of sacrificing intimacy to achieve universality, which makes any pronouncement hollow. Egan wants so badly to say something that she says nothing of worth. Her characters, for all their tragic flaws, feel like symptoms, not people, and A Visit from the Goon Squad holds few pleasures outside the child’s play of the imbricated character relations falling into place. Then again, every new link only brings up yet more cheap sadness, and the fact that people are mistaking that for human depth in the 21st century says more about our mentality than anything in Egan’s sloppy work.

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One Comment

  1. tea

    February 7, 2013 at 3:50 pm

    But why is it POST-postmodern?

    Reply

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