Friday, June 28, 2013

Jennifer Egan's "A Visit From the Goon Squad": Book Review

Nearly 500 reviewers already weighed in on this ambitious novel's wide range of settings, diverse characters, and sprawling, time-leaping plot. Everything from a oddly appealing if annoying kleptomaniac in a fine opening vignette to an Asian dictatorship to an African safari, with lots of New York City, even after climate change, terrorist fears, and more economic collapse, where people keep having babies. Music plays a key role, if not as much as I thought it would (seeing the title cribs from Elvis Costello), and the plot shifts more to fame, fear, and longing, more universal concerns among its unsettled cast of urban and suburban yearners, obsessed with gadgets, social networking exponentially amped into "parrots," and with a familiar litany of angst and dreams, conveyed best of all if unexpectedly in one decaying, parched California high-desert exurb in a poignant chapter related through a girl's Power Point.

The plot's all over the place, literally. Latch on to an appealing young woman on the make and a chapter later, it's another time and another generation. Jennifer Egan manages to keep all her storylines folding into each other, but readers lacking patience may wonder at her intricacy. For me, it worked as entertainment, with the attempted rapist, a journalist in eerie thrall to a despot, and the foibles of journalism best succeeding. However, the African interlude failed to keep my interest, even if I understood why it had its place in character development. For all its range, you can still see the seams showing now and then within the construction. Egan puts a lot of energy into juggling a lot of balls in the air at once.

I chose to hear this with Roxana Ortega's dramatization. (The Power Point's via a click-through slide-show with a quaint projector sound on the tape.) Her often ironic, sneering, blustery, or fragile voice captures effectively the brash attitude of the passel of these often snobbish, insecure, and/or privileged folks, scrabbling their way up the social ladder in cities and exurbs, as the planet weakens under global warming and the media-driven frenzies escalate. Underneath it all, it's a comedy of manners two hundred years after Jane Austen, perhaps. (Amazon US 7-31-12)

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