In the early 2000s, a number of American writers (all male, which I think is significant, on which more below), in a conscious revolt against what they felt were the negative effects of literary theory and the academy on literary fiction, began to publish novels written in a familiar narrative vernacular designed to be accessible to the average reader. Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex were the most prominent of these works, which Jonathan Franzen characterized as an argument for the novel. There was also some anti-irony sentiment involved in this calculated turn away from both genre fiction and the literary tricks of writers like Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace. Since that time, American fiction seems to have been divided into two camps, each of which sneers a bit at the other. Either you are a postmodernist ironic trickster or a sentimental realist writer, and never the twain shall meet.
There are some writers (who tend to be among my favorites) that seem to resist this distinction, even embrace mixing the oil and water of realism and anti-realism. Michael Chabon is one contemporary American writer who has done this successfully, writing novels that self-consiciously mix high and low literary styles, winking at us while simultaneously touching us deeply. Jennifer Egan has entered that category as well with her Pulitzer-Prize-winning 2010 novel A Visit from the Good Squad. She has produced a masterful literary hybrid that never declares itself precisely, locating its narrative both within and outside of linear chronologies and recognizable genres.
The title of the novel itself refers to its unconventional treatment of narrative. Taken from a semi-comprehensible declaration made by a mentally unstable character – “Time’s a goon” – the title declares its intention to reconceive chronology and linearity. And it is indeed a “goon squad” the reader is faced with here: a narrative that wanders back and forth in time, from character to character, slowly circling and closing in on – but never reaching – a definitive conclusion. That’s not to say that the book never ends – it does, and elegantly, with a marginal character from the first section who is now the central character remembering that earlier moment – but that it gently, tenderly allows its characterizations and events to unfold, more like a flower than a timeline marked by eras and plot developments.
One example of the book’s unique treatment of time is the way in which events that would comprise the meat and potatoes of a conventional novel are often conflated into a sentence or paragraph, while the narrative itself focuses in detail on the interior lives of its characters. Near the end of the book, Egan writes of a character we’ve seen both up-close and obliquely at various moments in her life, ”On another day more than twenty years after this one, after Sasha had gone to college and settled in new York; after she’d reconnected on Facebook with her college boyfriend and married late…and had two children, one of whom was slightly autistic; when she was like anyone, with a life that worried and electrified and overwhelmed her, Ted, long divorced – a grandfather – would visit Sasha at home in the California desert.” That one sentence contains a whole Jonathan Franzen novel, but it is the tremendous accomplishment of A Visit from the Goon Squad that it doesn’t require this kind of conventional plot development and characterization to tell its emotionally real, sprawling story.
Instead, this novel – if it is a novel – plays with the conventions not just of time, but of narrative itself. Written as a series of interlocking, non-linear vignettes with recurring characters and themes, it’s not even immediately clear that it can be called a novel. Is it connected short stories? A new form? Who knows and who cares? The form is inextricable from its content, and meshes perfectly with the themes of time and linearity that are its central motifs. The book also incorporates various genres, including journalism, speculative fiction, even a PowerPoint presentation, complicating our ability to classify it and calling into question the need for classification. In the same way that it exists out of time, A Visit from the Goon Squad exists out of genre, playing happily with our notions of what a novel should be.
This joy in its own execution is part of what distinguishes this book from the angry realism of the early 2000s. In this sense, Jennifer Egan also seems to be playing with some of the rigid and dogmatic ideas about the American novel that have been advanced in the last decade by some of its most prominent practitioners. It doesn’t surprise me much that it is a woman writer who would challenge the parameters of the realist novel in such a playful, inclusive way. It is often those writing on the margins (and if you do not think that American women novelists write from the margins, check this out) who are most clearly able to see the way forward, to incorporate disparate influences and minority voices and cultures into their work. Michael Chabon, another pioneer of the anti-realist and genre novel, also consciously writes about marginal themes – even Yiddish, which is on the margins of the Jewish margins he represents. In my mind, these are the American novels that are most of the moment – the ones that challenge our ideas about writing itself and bring us the unexpected, without dogma, without anger, and with the “careening hope” of both past and future Egan describes.