A Visit From the Goon Squad

Again, it was time to decide on the next book for me to read. At one time, that meant perusing the bookshelves in my home – when we lived in Mesquite our entire hallway was lined with shelves chock-a-block with tomes (that’s been reduced to one small and two full-sized bookcases… and they are only half full – mostly non-fiction reference). Now it is a ritual of clicking through the collections in my Kindle… preferably sitting at my laptop, looking up information on each possibility. As the thread of my life is shortening my choice in reading is becoming more selective – there isn’t enough time. When I was young I would finish a book no matter how much I detested or was bored by it. Now, if it isn’t grabbing me, I hit the REMOVE FROM DEVICE selection.

I have had Jennifer Egan’s  “A Visit From the Goon Squad” for some time – having picked it out from a recommended reading list somewhere. It was something I was sure to like; a novel of tightly connected short stories that won the Pulitzer Prize and many other awards. It had to be good.

However, I had been putting it off. After thinking about it, I’ve realized that it was because I hated the title. “A Visit From the Good Squad” had very negative associations in my noggin’ – though I’m not sure what they were. My mistake was in taking the phrase “Goon Squad” literally – the book does not (in the book the “Goon” is time itself – the central metaphor for the story). I knew nothing about the details of the book (I’ve been trying to avoid plot summaries of books and films – life is a bit more exciting that way) and the title left a bad taste in my mouth.

As I was researching my choice in next-to-read I discovered that HBO is making a cable series out of the book. That was good enough for me. I clicked it into my “READING” collection and dug in.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that (a) the book is very, very good… and (b) the stories are connected in a complex web of space, time, and human connections. I was not going to be able to keep track of everything without help. So I dug out a Staples Bagaase Composition Book (one of the great inventions of all time) and three fountain pens (turquoise, gold-brown, and purple – to help keep different threads separate) and took notes as I read. I wrote down each character, their age, the year (as best as I could figure) and all the connections between them.

By the end of the book I had about twelve pages of concise notes. Not all the possibilities worked out – but I can’t imagine enjoying the stories as much as I did without this effort. It was kind of fun to sit there annotating as I read… sort of like being back in school again.

About halfway through I thought that I probably wasn’t the first person that had this need to outline “A Visit From the Goon Squad” and a quick web search revealed that I wasn’t. Two resources were particularly useful – a detailed timeline of the interlocked stories of the most important dozen characters, and a wonderful 3-D construct, an Interactive Character Map of the denizens of the novel and their relationships with each other. With these resources at my disposal my note-taking became redundant but I forged ahead – a little sloppier – and did discover a couple of connections not noted in the online references.

Having gone into this book from “How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe” I was relieved to find a more conventional narrative – one with real people and settings. Still, there are a few postmodern touches – especially in the fact that one chapter is told in PowerPoint.

I cared deeply about the characters and wanted to see them happy – which is a good thing, if not always (or even very often) possible. After all, time is a goon, and we are all due our visit from the goon squad.