Dispatches | April 21, 2011

When the time comes for Pulitzer announcements, I am usually waiting eagerly to hear who wins the fiction award.  If I’ve read it, I feel a self-satisfied vindication that I am keeping my finger appropriately placed on the pulse of contemporary fiction.  If I haven’t read it, well I usually go ask my wife, who diligently pays attention to new fiction, not half-pretending to as I am.  Last year, she’d read the winner Tinkers, and had been nudging me to read it for a solid month when the award was announced.  This year, I was right there with her, having read A Visit From the Goon Squad for a graduate class just a week before the announcement.  Of course,  plenty (ok, ok most) of the books released this year I’ve yet to read, but that doesn’t take anything away from Jennifer Egan and her work.  This book deserves the Pulitzer Prize; I’ll do my best to explain why.

First, a bit of a summary for those who haven’t read it: A Visit from the Goon Squad is what might be called a novel in stories or linked short stories or a short story cycle.  Semantically these all mean slightly different things, and I’m not sure exactly where Egan’s novel falls, but that doesn’t seem all that important.  What is important is that the stories in A Visit jump through a large cast of interrelated characters and a large expanse of time.  They are connected not only through their relationships, but also through the music industry.  It is a book, though not chronological itself, that is largely concerned with time and with the way people rise and fall along the course of their lives.

Now, why it deserves it: It seems that the best novels in stories are able to collectively characterize a time and a place and an atmosphere.  An iconic example is Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, which not only represents a small town in a rapidly urbanizing America.  Egan takes this form, and lets it play out on a much larger scale.  A Visit isn’t geographically confined.  It spends a great deal of time in San Francisco and NYC, but also moves to a safari in Africa and a visit to an unnamed dictator in an unnamed out of the way country.  It also isn’t constrained to depicting a sliver of time, rather an era–within which whole lives are lived and characters rise and fall and rise again.

Another cue Egan takes from writers of this form such as Anderson is the use of a central character around which the others seem to revolve.  For Anderson it was the young journalist George Willard; for Egan, it is Sasha, who is everything from a runaway teen to a kleptomaniac assistant for a music mogul to a mother.  Many of the characters recur and many of the characters are protagonists at one point or another. Egan’s skill in organizing the narrative  is such that at times I could guess whose story we’d get next, because a special attention was given to some peripheral character lurking at the edge of the narrative, waiting for his/her chance to speak.  But Sasha seemed the heart of this overarching narrative, and she was certainly a compelling one.

Egan expands or elaborates on the form in other ways as well.  She plays with point of view, voice, narrative style, and even structure.  The latter occurs most significantly on the books B-side (a clever divide Egan sets up to reflect the sides of a record), in the story “Great Rock and Roll Pauses By Alison Blake.”  This story is in fact a sequence of powerpoint slides constructed by a young girl in the near future.  I was hesitant and worried the structure might become a conceit or a gimmick when I saw this story, but after reading it, I am convinced it is the books finest moment.  In the end it doesn’t feel all that experimental because Egan so deftly creates narrative in the unusual form.  It is the most effecting and complete short story I have read in quite some time, though I believe that is brought about by perhaps Egan’s greatest success.

In my opinion, this greatest success is that the stories in A Visit work together and build something much greater than the separate parts.  Taken alone, more than a few stories were well realized, interesting, and, finally, not all that compelling.  However, when stories such as “Safari” or the aforementioned “Great Rock and Roll Pauses…” came along, they brought the book to a new and much more significant level, and similarly granted significance to everything around them.  If this book was the record it imitates, these stories would be the singles.  However, as with the best records, experiencing those singles alone can’t elevate them to the level they reach as a part of a whole when experienced with the entire work.  A Visit From the Goon Squad‘s success is brought about by the deftness with which characters and times and places and conflicts and narratives are interwoven.

I was happy to see it justly recognized with a Pulitzer. A big congratulations to Jennifer Egan and to all the other Pulitzer recipients.

Mike Petrik is an intern at The Missouri Review, and a PhD candidate in creative writing at the University of Missouri.

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