A few weeks ago, as we played tourists at the Library of Congress, I stumbled across an $8 version of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad. And I snatched it up. I’d heard good things, and splashing “Winner of the Pulitzer Prize” on the front doesn’t hurt for advertising. The book became my first in a series of Metro Reads 2012.
(Metro Reads: I decided I take in enough news content between the Washington Post at my door every morning and regular email alerts through the day at work, my Metro rides would be better spent reading books than Express. Express, I do miss your wit.)
At first, I thought it was the 15 minute spurts of reading, interrupted by falling over with sudden stops from the Metro drivers, that caused my confusion. It seemed every chapter began anew, and I found myself struggling to place Sasha and Joycelyn and Rolph together. And then I realized the beauty of the structure, the build of the story. The unnamed narrators of previous stories were showing up again, later, or earlier. Children and their parents danced across chapters, and lives fell apart over years.
I couldn’t put the book down, reading up escalators and elevators to my office. Egan built a whole world for her characters, and I could imagine her—I have no idea if she did this or not—taking up a whole wall of post-it notes in table form to structure that world accordingly. Characters would take one axis and years would claim another. In the middle, the post-it notes of action points struck one another, clashing on the wall, which allowed Egan to write about them in a way that slowly and elegantly revealed their secrets and mysteries over chapters for the reader.
If you don’t like wallet snatchers or punk music or safaris or publicists or college kids swimming where and when they shouldn’t, I beg, you keep reading. Surely, differently readers will pick up on different clues throughout the storyline, but I promise, there will be a line or a revelation that will click with you and make you appreciate Egan’s magic.
It would be absolutely folly to try and explain this plot to you. So I won’t even try. But if you’d like to believe this story is about how a wallet snatching young woman turns into a loving mother with brilliant children, I’ll let you believe that. If you want to believe that a music executive’s failures could never tell us about our future, you could believe that, too, even though you’d be wrong. Whatever will get you to read this book, I’d tell you. It’s worth it.