I’m going to find this book tough to review because — dare I confess? — I really couldn’t follow parts of it. It starts off with a great scene — Sasha’s on another bad first date and heads into the women’s room for some recharging. She spies a green wallet sticking out of a bag, while its owner is busy in the stall. Sasha’s a kleptomaniac, and she’s been working with a therapist to understand why stealing gives her such a rush of pleasure. But the opportunity the unattended wallet presents to give her a rush of relief from her boring date is just too perfect a chance to pass by. So she nabs it. This first chapter nabbed me, too, even if I did have to wonder — who the hell leaves their bag outside the stall while using a public bathroom?
The first chapter is about Sasha, at the time when she works for a powerful record producer, Bernie, who was once a aspiring punk rock musician. The second chapter is told from Bernie’s POV at an entirely different point of time than the Sasha chapter, as his career is spinning out of control. As a reader, I am accustomed to writer’s bouncing me between different character’s perspectives or time periods. What I was not ready for was the way each chapter in Goon Squad was presented from an entirely new character’s viewpoint, usually a seemingly minor character mentioned in either Bernie or Sasha’s life. For example, one of the last chapters in the book is from the point of view of Ted, the guy that Sasha was on a date with in chapter 1. These different characters fill in Bernie and/or Sasha’s stories from different points in their lives/time.
It often took a lot of work to remember which previously mentioned character was narrating. Maybe it was because I have been busy and picked up/put down the book a lot, but I couldn’t always figure out WHO was narrating and that irritated me. Also, I was really interested in Bernie and Sasha, but it felt like the construction of the novel prevented me developing clearer picture of who these characters were, rather than rounding them out from the first two chapters.
Perhaps some of this vagueness was the point of the novel and why other characters viewpoints were used. Our lives often intersect with others and it’s rare that we see in them in their entirely. We only really ever get a slice of someone’s life at any given time. Then they become a memory to us as they are, whereas they continue to move and change through their lives in ways that we don’t see. Maybe Egan was giving us lots of these slices to paint a bigger picture of Sasha and Bernie, similar to how Elizabeth Strout gives us a bigger picture of Olive in Olive Kitteridge. But I like the way Strout did it better — it felt less contrived and I finished with a greater sense of what made Olive tick than I ever did with either Sasha or Bernie. And I think I am more disappointed because I was more interested in both of them than I ever was in Olive.
How do you feel about novels that have “tricky” construction? Do you like them, or do more straightforward narratives resonate better with you? For me, I think it depends on the writer and the story, but overall, I lean toward straightforward. I want to be able to sink more into language and nuance, rather than puzzling out construction. It’s notable to me that I didn’t pull a single quote out of this novel. Though the writing was good, it was more about structure and theme than language and storytelling.