“Time’s a goon, right?”
Jennifer Egan, A Visit From the Goon Squad, 2010
“Time cover-boy loses book award to some lady.”
Spoofs along these lines proliferated when Jennifer Egan beat Jonathan Franzen to win the prestigious National Book Critics Circle Award, and the LA Times reported it as Franzen’s loss rather than Egan’s win, printing his picture, not hers. Egan’s novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad, went on to win more awards, including the Pulitzer Prize.
Like the characters in Franzen’s novel, Freedom, people in Goon Squad are shocked by the unexpected and unwanted ways their lives turn out. Franzen focuses on our inability to use our freedom wisely, while Egan sees time as a goon that beats us up and knocks us sideways.
Any summary of Egan’s novel makes it sound like a hotchpotch: thirteen chapters, each in a different style with a different protagonist, scattered out of chronological order between the 1970s and the 2020s. But it works, because we connect with the characters.
In Freedom, Franzen gives us so much information about his characters that they become boring, and I didn’t care that they messed up their lives. Egan tells us much less, but provides exactly the right details to elicit our empathy: Sasha, trying to overcome her kleptomania, but unable to resist touching the wallet she has just stolen “for the contraction it made her feel around her heart”; or music producer Bennie overcome by “shame memories” such as the time he unthinkingly kissed a Mother Superior on the mouth.
The penultimate chapter of Goon Squad is a Powerpoint presentation by a twelve-year-old girl, Alison. Egan uses this cold corporate tool to convey the dynamics of a family, evoking their difficulties, failings and happiness, and showing how episodes in the parents’ past lives (to which we, but not Alison, have been privy) affect the way they relate to each other and to their children. This is the first time I’ve experienced tender feelings from Powerpoint slides.
Franzen’s Freedom is serious, and after a while, reading it feels like a duty. Goon Squad is both serious and hilarious, a delight from beginning to end. As I suggested in my review, Freedom has a constructed feel, “as if Franzen set out to write a book to explore contemporary social issues, and designed the characters to fulfil this purpose”. Egan created her characters for their own sake, and while they have to deal with the social world around them, this is not their raison d’etre. They illuminate love and friendship and the way time can turn youthful promise into adult failure, but that’s because of who they are, not because they are forced to.
For me, the central metaphor of time as a goon is striking but not entirely convincing. Our lives take wrong turns because of bad choices or accidents or the ill will of others, and time is the matrix in which this plays out, rather than the cause. I would rather see passing time as something to be valued, as suggested in the previous post, than as a goon. Franzen’s image of his protagonists struggling to find out how to live is perhaps less striking but more convincing, and it could be argued that his exploration of contemporary issues has greater depth.
Yet Egan’s light touch beats Franzen’s heavy hand. I’d much rather hang out with the characters in Goon Squad any day.