Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Quantum Leaping with Jennifer Egan

Much like the character of Dr Sam Beckett in the cult 80s TV show Quantum Leap, Jennifer Egan’s latest offering, the Pulitzer Prize winning A Visit from the Goon Squad, is a novel that likes to jump around … a lot

Spanning four decades, crossing numerous cities and continents, and resolutely shunning chronological conventions, the book is a montage of random episodes that serve to illustrate the lives of its many characters. Seemingly inspired by the ‘six degrees of separation’ theory, the actors in this drama are drawn from a complex web of connections which all lead back to two main players, the music impresario Bennie Salazar and his beautiful-but-complicated assistant Sasha.

Jennifer Egan
The book is a very ambitious undertaking for Egan. With a cast of characters to rival Tolstoy, a rather lengthy time span and an unconventional structure (with each new chapter devoted to a different character in a different place and time), the pressure is on Egan to make it work … and, for the most part, she does.

Reading more like a collection of short stories than a novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad is a unique concept which has been cleverly executed. Occasionally, the reader feels that the various strands of the story are in danger of becoming irretrievably tangled, but the author always seems to pull back from the brink – thanks mainly to Bennie and Sasha, who ‘anchor’ the narrative and prevent it from spiralling out of control.

The overriding theme of the book is time, or rather the unrelenting passage of time. As the title suggests, time is the ’goon’ or bully from which there is no escape – this particular goon will visit us all in the end. Such a theme as this could easily have made for an unremittingly miserable read, but while there are some gloomy chapters, Egan’s dark humour is often deployed to lighten the load. In fact, as Egan whizzes backwards and forwards in time, from person to person and place to place, the novel veers from the depressing to the exhilarating with breathtaking speed. Add to this the 75 pages of powerpoint presentations and the dizzying array of references to subjects as diverse as ancient history, art, architecture and obscure punk rock bands from the 70s (Egan is obviously quite the renaissance woman), and it soon becomes clear that this is a novel that simply refuses to be ignored.

A Visit from the Goon Squad is published in the UK by Corsair, an imprint of Constable and Robinson Ltd

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