Sometimes you read a book because you’ve chosen it specifically, and other times, books land serendipitously into your life. Recently, my mother passed on a book she’d missed in her book club, and I picked up another at The Book Thing of Baltimore when I dropped off the results of my recent book purge. Despite not choosing to read them together, they had a lot in common, and the experience certainly colored my perceptions of each.
Both A Visit from the Goon Squad and A Fortunate Age: A Novel are modern books set primarily in New York City. By modern, I mean not only that they take place in the very recent past, but also that both employ specifically modern techniques, shifting narratives that move from character to character and incorporating themes of modern society into the themes of the novel. If you’ve read much about Goon Squad, for example, you know that there is an entire chapter done in Powerpoint slides, and the characters in Fortunate Age read Gawker.
Despite being in the generation that should be right in tune with the cultural references for these books, I confess up front that as a reader, I don’t usually fall in love with modern novels. I like a little history, a little epic sweep, a little romance and tragedy played out against a greater stage. Therefore, I’m more likely to feel strongly about a contemporary novel like The Invisible Bridge (my review here) or The Paris Wife: A Novel (the latter of which I reviewed here and also recommended to my mother’s book club, so clearly I loved it!). I confess further that I also enjoy real endings to books, with a little more resolution than many modern novels tend to offer.
However, that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate modern novels, and I found much to appreciate and admire in these two. A Fortunate Age does a pitch-perfect job of capturing the post-college wanderings privileged young people go through these days, with major and minor detours of varying strength, and the characters in it ring true. Some of the characters land on their feet, others get lost in the forest, but you end up truly caring about each of them, and their eventual destinies seem authentic and fitting. I especially liked Emily, an aspiring actress with a mentally ill sister, and Dave, a musician who experiences success and ambivalence in equal measures. While A Visit from the Goon Squad does shift like a kaleidoscope and employ some innovative narrative strategies, I never felt like Egan’s maneuvers were gratuitous or distracted from the story she was telling or the characters that were speaking. Each novel did a great job of building a world that felt comprehensive and vivid, realistically flawed and sincere characters, and a pervasive emotional tone.
- Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad is all about the timing (arts.nationalpost.com)
- ‘A Visit From The Goon Squad’ Book Club Part I: Light And Memory (thinkprogress.org)
- A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (nellafreund.wordpress.com)
- Book Review: A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (swampofboredom.com)