Coruscation Beats Content
One of Elmore Leonard’s famous ten rules of writing is: “If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.” Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad is painfully contrived. Chapters are written in first-person (with different narrators), third-close (with different POVs), and second-person (unidentified narrator). These glaring shifts in narration serve no purpose other than to draw attention to the writer.
The first 130 pages make a decent story, which I enjoyed. A group of young people are fans of punk rock in the 1980s or 1990s, it seems. Some are performers, some groupies, one a record producer. They have romances and breakups, are confused about the directions of their lives, and generally live in a fog. Toward the end of that section we see them as grown and asking themselves, “How did my life turn out like this?” Some are successful but soul-dead suburbanites, some recovering addicts, some homeless bums. They still live in an unknowing fog, but now with ageing bodies and dim prospects. That’s a theme worthy of a novel.
The last 200 pages fall off a cliff. They are directionless scenes and snippets; unconnected, arbitrary characters doing arbitrary, uninteresting things. It’s writing for the sake of writing, with random shifts in narration and POV, and even a horrible 70-page PowerPoint that has all the interest and drama of a PowerPoint. It’s novelty for the sake of novelty.
How do gimmicky, patently contrived books like this get published? It’s a deep mystery, considering that this one also won a Pulitzer Prize, and was named a New York Times Book Review Best Book, not to mention the National Book Critics Circle Award and a PEN/Faulkner finalist. The New York publishing/marketing industry obviously marches to its own drummer.
Writing at the sentence level is quite good. some passages are well-observed, and some scenes have great tension. I admired the way Egan was able to seamlessly weave backstory and flashback into the narrative, a task every writer struggles with. Her use of prolepsis (pulling the future into the present: “She would never see her sister again.”) was clunky, but overall I’d say Egan is a master of time management, one of the most powerful tools a novelist has. So it was not all bad.
It’s hard to write 130 good pages; even harder to write 330. Egan succeeded at the first, but not the second.