A few weeks ago this novel by Jennifer Egan beat critical darling Jonathan Franzen's much eulogised Freedom to the highly prestigious National Book Critics Circle award in the US.
Substance, for once, had supplanted hype. Not that Franzen, or Freedom, are without plenty of substance; but the almost delirious praise showered on both smacked of hysteria and an odd sort of mob mentality.
Egan's novel A Visit from the Goon Squad, by contrast, has arrived in a relatively low-key manner, and it's genuinely a great piece of work; or rather, a dozen or so pieces of work. In a style that reminded me of David Mitchell and also last year's Day for Night by Frederick Reiken, this book is made up of a series of stories which are in some way interconnected to each other.
They cross decades and continents and different lives and seemingly random events; but through great technical skill, sharp humour and authorial confidence, Egan draws all the strands together, weaving them, creating a brilliant tapestry. Actually, that's not the right metaphor; a lot of the novel is centred on the music business, so we'll say that she takes these discordant notes and motifs, and makes something melodic and symphonic.
Up until now, I'd only vaguely heard of Irish-American Egan (through her father -- her ancestors on that side hail from Limerick). Her 2001 novel The Invisible Circus was filmed with Cameron Diaz in the lead role; The Keep was a bestseller in 2008. A Visit from the Goon Squad, though, will surely catapult her into the big league; and well deserved it is, too.
The cast of characters is quirky, well drawn and colourful: there's Sasha the kleptomaniac, Scott the burnout, Dolly the publicist, Kitty the actress with the dark past and Jules the journalist who's the reason for that past, and many more. But if one person can be said to stand at the middle of this sprawling narrative, it's Benny Salazar: a former punk musician turned producer, though again, not exactly the most successful in the world.
Egan has described her novel as being like The Sopranos crossed with Proust, and this, while sounding a bit like a marketing gimmick, actually makes sense. Like the great French writer, A Visit from the Goon Squad is obsessed with time: how it passes, how we pass through it, how it changes everything and, more pertinently, wears everything down, including us, to little more than specks of sand in the great desert of history.
Time is the Goon Squad of the title: it roughs you up and, as Egan puts it, "pushes you around".
Egan plays with a bewildering range of styles, time shifts, even narrative perspectives: the tenth chapter, 'Out of Body', takes on the second-person narrative and makes it work.
There is also a rather strange section near the end, presented as a series of PowerPoint slides; initially it seems like nothing more than showy post-modern trickery, but under Egan's guidance it's powerful and undeniably affecting.
A Visit from the Goon Squad is a tremendous novel: thoughtful, subtle, funny, wacky, energetic, profoundly authentic. It's not quite Proust, but Jennifer Egan's book is head and shoulders above most of its peers.
Darragh McManus's new e-book Cold! Steel! Justice!!! (written as Alexander O'Hara) is available from Amazon.com