Friday Faves: A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

…in which I invite someone bookish to share one of their all-time favourite works of fiction and what it means to them. This week’s Friday Fave comes from Kristen Levitzke.

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‘It’s a cliché, but choosing your most-loved book is a bit like choosing your favourite child. When Annabel asked me make a Friday Faves contribution, I immediately scanned my ‘special shelf’ and considered all of the books I’ve selected as favourites in the past: The Secret History by Donna Tartt, Essays in Love by Alain De Botton, Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder, Lolita by Nabokov, Atonement by Mckewan. But then I forced myself to think outside of the shelf; to reflect on the fiction I’ve read in the last few years and decide which I’ve found most inspiring as a writer and as a human being. You see, ‘favourites’ are a dynamic thing. When people change, the books they read, or have read, change with them. The novel I’ve selected deals with these themes exactly; the way that our identities, our interests and preferences evolve over time; how so many of the stories we tell ourselves do not endure. What I’m saying, is that my ‘favourite’ will change soon enough: don’t hold me to it.

Now that I’ve blurted my writerly, rather neurotic disclaimer, I’ll go ahead and give you what you’ve all been waiting for:

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In the past few years, I’ve read bleak books that made me ache, books that have been like empathy machines– they’re the ones that have surely changed me for the better. I’ve read well-written fluff that has made me laugh out loud and given me respite from my busy life. They’ve all been great reads, but I believe that the best fiction provides a balanced serve of sour and sweet. I choose Goon Squad because it does just this.

I discovered this novel when I heard Jennifer Egan interviewed on RN’s Books and Arts Daily. I didn’t go hunting for the book, but serendipitously noticed it in the ‘Quick Picks’ section of my local library. I started reading at the traffic lights and stayed up for most of the night, engrossed. At the time, I had just finished a year-long reading hiatus. Let me explain: when I was writing my first novel draft in 2011, I was fearful of adopting the voice and tone of other writers, so I stopped reading for a year (just as an aside: bedtime Enid Blyton was evidence of this propensity; suddenly my writing became rather twee!). A self-imposed fiction prohibition was no small feat for this long-time reading addict. But I’d decided to write my novel in the year that my youngest son turned two, and my eldest started pre-primary. Mums and Dads, you know what I’m saying: time was limited, and every spare second was spent writing.

 A Visit from the Goon Squad was not the first book I read after my reading ban, but I stumbled upon it during a period when I was rediscovering the great joy of fiction. I sometimes wonder if I fell in love with Egan’s novel because I was like a starved woman at a banquet. Or maybe it was just really good writing and characterisation; structurally unusual, but all the more special for it. For those who don’t know, the Pulitzer Prize winning A Visit from the Goon Squad is a collection of interconnected short stories, and there has been some debate over whether it is a novel or short story collection. Egan herself classifies it as a novel, but acknowledges that each of the chapters could stand alone as short stories. I think that unconsciously, around this time, I was growing more interested in the short story form; I had novel fatigue, sick to death of the structural difficulties I was having with my own work. I’ve since written five short stories whilst continuing to tackle the beast that is my first novel.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the chapter written in PowerPoint that moved me to tears. It is written from the perspective of Alison Blake, the teenage daughter of one of the early protagonists. In PowerPoint, Alison paints a poignant portrait of her family. She suggests the kind of subtle interplay between family members that is instantly recognisable; the power plays, the small frustrations, and the love that prevails anyway. I work with children with language and communication difficulties, and Egan’s insights about Aspergers (or some other non-neurotypical condition) and the implications for this particular family made me cry. Not because I was saddened, but because it made me think about the great power of human connection, the way that love can transcend communication difficulties. We can tell stories, and recognise ourselves in each other in a vast variety of ways, even PowerPoint. I won’t share too much more, because this is fiction that should be experienced, within the context of the entire novel.

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The structure had its downfalls, and I was occasionally frustrated when I found myself invested in characters that suddenly disappeared, cruelly obscured by interlopers in a subsequent story. But, the thing is, we get to meet them all again, in a different time, usually amongst different people. And that feels profound, because the novel is about the capricious nature of time; the goon is fickle, and just like ‘favourite novels’, humans change. We will have many ‘selves’ over the course of a lifetime and Egan reminds us to have a sense of humour about it.

Inspired by Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Egan began A Visit from the Goon Squad with this quote:

Poets claim that we recapture for a moment the self that we were long ago when we enter some house or garden in which we used to live in our youth. But these are most hazardous pilgrimages, which end as often in disappointment as in success. It is in ourselves that we should rather seek to find those fixed places, contemporaneous with different years.

I wonder, if I return to this text in ten years, if I’ll love it the way I do right now.

Kristen Levitzke is a Perth-based mother, teacher and writer of fiction. She graduated from the University of Western Australia in 2004 with a Bachelor of Arts (English & Fine Arts) and subsequently completed a postgraduate Diploma of Education. Kristen has only recently returned to writing and is currently redrafting her first novel whilst teaching part-time and raising two delightful boys.  Kristen is a true bibliophile with a deep passion for  language, education and literacy development.

Your turn: Have you read this or any of other Egan’s books? She is one of my favourite writers and I love this book as much as Kristen. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it!

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Friday Faves  A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan   ANNABEL SMITH

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