Thursday, 29 December 2011

Pulitzer Prize-winner

Not one from "the pile" this time, but one that I've actually just finished reading. A Visit From The Goon Squad, by the US writer Jennifer Egan, is the 2010 winner of the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Not a prize for which I've read many winners before, the only one I can think of is Richard Ford's excellent 1995 novel Independence Day (for clarity: not the novelisation of the almost-concurrent film). So, is AVFTGS in the same league?

Spanning the 1970s to the 2020s, A Visit From The Goon Squad drops in and out of the lives of a loose group of friends and their families. Broadly centred around the characters of Bennie Salazar, a musician turned music industry executive, and his one-time PA, and kleptomaniac, Sasha, the novel's 13 chapters detail short but significant interludes that milestone their lives, with each told from the perspective of a different character. The first finds Sasha stealing a purse during a blind date with Alex, while the last closes several decades later with Alex astroturfing a word-of-mouth campaign for Bennie. In between, chapters include the breakdown of Bemnie's marriage from the perspective of his wife Stephanie, the death by drowning of a drug-addled college friend, a journey to Italy by Sasha's uncle, Ted, to find her when she goes "missing" as a teenager, and a PowerPoint presentation of her family's dynamics by Sasha's daughter, Alison.

By way of summary, this is one of those novels that, while both admirable and enjoyable, does leave you in head-scratching mode. It starts with the title itself, on which the novel offers only a single reference, and then rather late in the day. But leaving aside the fact that the novel leaves you to do all of the heavy-lifting when it comes to meaning and interpretation (unless, that is, it's just me), it's a well-written and highly entertaining read. And actually quite a lot of fun too. The novel's darkest, at least on one level, chapter involves a genocidal dictator, but tells it, lightly and deftly, from the perspective of the disgraced PR wizard hired to make him more presentable.

As the outline above probably already implies, at times it seems more a collection of connected stories involving the same characters rather than a straight novel, but it is possible to discern some thematic threads that link, rather than bind, Bennie and Sasha's misadventures. By rummaging over such a long time-frame, and dipping into a number of periods of recent (and still to come) US history, it's also clearly one of those "state-of-the-nation" novels so beloved of columnists and prize-awarding committees, though even on this point it's considerably more obtuse than other novels in this oeuvre.

One minor downside of the novel's constant chopping and changing of perspective (as well as its hopping backwards and forwards in time) is that it's very (very) easy to lose track of who various characters are. Sasha and Bennie act as anchors most of the time, but there are, I'm sure, many characters who bridge chapters but who I completely failed to link in. I think this is a weakness, one that contributes to the feeling that this is more a short story collection than a novel, but it's generally a minor one. But I can well believe that it'll annoy readers less prepared to roll with it than I am (having been conditioned by years of outlandish science fiction).

One of Egan's most interesting decisions, and one that I originally thought sounded like a disaster waiting to happen, is to tell Sasha's daughter's story through the medium of a PowerPoint presentation (one slide per page). Alison uses all of the conventional iconography of PowerPoint - shapes, arrows, graphs, speech bubbles - to describe each of the members of her family, and the dynamics that alternately antagonise and bind them. While it did seem like a pretty stupid gimmick when I started Alison's chapter, it didn't take me long to warm to it, and I found some of the slides, particularly those where she dissects her mother and father's demons, surprisingly affecting. In passing, I must add that I'm faintly disappointed that Egan beat the Great Geek God, Douglas Coupland, to this - it's totally the kind of thing one would expect him to do first.

Finally, on the themes that I discerned in the novel, the best I can do is that it's a meditation on how different life can be from the aspirations and idealism of one's youth. So we see Bennie turn from a modestly talented musician into a pretty sharp music executive, into a failed music executive, into a reborn music executive buoyed up by a fake word-of-mouth campaign. And, similarly, Sasha's transformation from a down-and-out petty thief in Naples, via a tragic death and stint as Bennie's PA, to a life as an artist and mother in the Californian desert. There's also something of a meditation on fame and celebrity going on, but nothing that I was able to get a good grip on. The closing chapter returns to this, via Alex's astroturfing, but here there seem to be much clearer messages about modern media-led norms. Specifically, how ubiquitous texting, lowered privacy and over-sharing, and corporate intrusion into the personal, are eroding/changing our relationships with one another. Or perhaps that's just my Web 1.0 attitudes feeling threatened by Web 2.0's openness?

In summary, most enjoyable. I'm not sure how it stacks up against other Pulitzer Prize winners, but I really liked it. I'd love to know what it's all about though ...

P.S. In tracking down a book cover image for this post, I came across this article which includes a number of diagrams of how the various characters in the novel connect (PowerPoint? how meta!). Per my remarks about keeping track of the characters in the novel, well worth a peek.

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