Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad takes a few chapters to get accustomed to. At first, it seems like a series of short stories. But when characters from one chapter start popping up in subsequent chapters, the connections start appearing. What emerges is not a clean map of relationships, but the messy connections of human emotions and circumstances.
Ever since we read The Selected Works of TS Spivet, maps have been on our minds. As we discussed A Visit From the Goon Squad, we realized we wanted a map of the relationships of the respective characters as well as of the connections along their timelines. Is this because we want to simplify and streamline complexities so as to better understand them? Or does this speak to how we visualize what we read? (More on this next month.)
For me, the desire to map a book comes partially from my own writing. I have folders filled with crumpled, tea-stained papers mapping emotional arcs, character connections, and even fear levels for specific characters. However, I think the desire to map this book also comes from the very nature of the characters. None of Egan’s characters are particularly likable, yet they’re relied upon and looked up to by other characters. In seeking to understand why, mapping may be the tool, the way to understand the messy connections.
Beauty, power, youth, and their intersections are at the heart of this novel. Every character is defined by their beauty or the power their beauty brings. While it’s undeniable that this dynamic exists around us every day, we found ourselves wanting something more from the characters. Indeed, the characters who had fallen in some way were the ones we most connected with or wanted to know more about. Is this because their stories are the ones less likely to follow the formulas of story? Or because we mark them as the most like us, and want to hear their stories as we think we have a greater chance of empathizing with them?
I know a number of readers weren’t able to join us for the meeting and I’d love to hear your thoughts on this novel. The group was divided on the inclusion of a chapter told entirely in PowerPoint slides and on the last chapter, which takes place in an undefined future. What did you think?
I am so excited for our next book, What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund. Mendelsund is an art director at Knopf and his book examines how we visualize what we read, including how the audio experience is different from the visual one and how our memories of reading differ from the act of reading. It’s a fascinating, beautifully designed book that’s a lot shorter than it looks (unless, like me, you keep rereading passages). I hope to see you at our meeting on Wednesday, May 27th!