A Literary Love Story: Jennifer Egan and Shakespeare and Company

While in Paris, I wanted to visit Shakespeare and Company, the second rendition of the famous bookstore run by Sylvia Beach and patronized by Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Picasso and others.  I wanted to buy A Moveable Feast (which I did, a new “restored” edition).  But I was also hunting for Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Good Squad (the photo, taken by my son, is me about to find it).  I’d wanted to read it for a while.  Now, with time–traveling Europe with my son–I was able to dive into it.  And I have to say, I think I am in love.

I haven’t enjoyed a book on so many levels in so long as I am enjoying Goon Squad.  It’s funny, poignant, poetic, nostalgic, smart, experimental, and enthralling.  And I’m not even finished with it.

Some things I’ve noticed as I’ve read: All the characters are blighted with flaws: drug addicts, egomaniacs, kleptomaniacs, lovelorn fools, runaways, adulterers, guilt-ridden gold eaters.  Each chapter is from a new point of view–sometimes first person, sometimes third, sometimes second…and the central character of each chapter is loosely connected to characters from the other chapters.  Sometimes the connection is thirty years before; sometimes it’s during the same time period–and all time periods are between the present and the ’70s.  Each chapter is a short story filled with a handful of reversals.  Egan will throw rocks at her characters and then, in a revelatory moment, expose the most generous beauty about them, only to snatch it away with some new punishment.  Yet, inexplicably, each chapter ends with surprisingly satisfying closure.  You feel for these wounded misfits as though they’re your sibling–or, maybe, a second cousin.

And the story in Goon Squad revolves around the music business, so for someone like me–who loves rock-and-roll and the stories of musicians and those associated with them–the reading is a blast.  And in this setting Egan’s imagination is at full throttle: one minute we’re with a record producer witnessing the failure of a promising act he signed, the next minute its 30 years earlier and the producer’s mentor is on a photo safari in Africa, flash forward and we’re with the producer’s wife’s boss, a publicity agent for a dictator, and we’re being flown to some foreign, suppressed country under armed guard.  These are geographically interesting, but its the small moments that Egan makes us privy to that standout the most.

You see, on top of the fun story and the mini-plots within the chapters, Egan’s prose is drop-dead gorgeous.  She has a way of threading deep within a character, drawing her focus down from the surface, into the innermost regions, and then back up into the scene, and down again for something even more insightful.

For example, the opening chapter follows Sasha after she steals a woman’s wallet.  What happens after the theft is the ongoing scene that Egan takes us through, but even in the first paragraphs, Egan takes us below the surface:

It began the usual way, in the bathroom of the Lassimo Hotel. Sasha was adjusting her yellow eyes shadow in the mirror when she noticed a bag on the floor beside the sink that must have belonged to the woman whose peeing she could faintly hear through the vaultlike door of a toilet stall. Inside the rim of the bag, barely visible, was a wallet made of pale green leather. It was easy for Sasha to recognize, looking back, that the peeing woman’s blind trust had provoked her: We live in a city where people will steal the hair off your head if you give them half a chance, but you leave your stuff lying in plain sight and expect it to be waiting for you when you get back? It made her want to teach the woman a lesson. But this wish only camouflaged the deeper feeling Sasha always had: that fat, tender wallet, offering itself to her hand — it seemed so dull, so life-as-usual to just leave it there rather than seize the moment, accept the challenge, take the leap, fly the coop, throw caution to the wind, live dangerously (“I get it,” Coz, her therapist said) and take the fucking thing.

“You mean steal it.”

He was trying to get Sasha to use that word, which was harder to avoid in the case of a wallet than with a lot of the things she’d lifted over the past year, when her condition (as Coz referred to it) had begun to accelerate: five sets of keys, fourteen pairs of sunglasses, a child’s striped scarf, binoculars, a cheese grater, a pocketknife, twenty-eight bars of soap, and eighty-five pens, ranging from cheap ballpoints she’d used to sign debit-card slips to the aubergine Visconti that cost two hundred sixty dollars online, which she’d lifted from her former boss’s lawyer during a contracts meeting. Sasha no longer took anything from stores — their cold, inert goods didn’t tempt her. Only from people.

“Okay,” she said. “Steal it.”

I could spend all day heaping praise on this novel.  For me, it exemplifies what fiction should be.  It’s truly art.  For insights into how Egan came up with some of her ideas (like the one above), checkout her website by clicking here.

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2 responses to “A Literary Love Story: Jennifer Egan and Shakespeare and Company

  1. I loved this one too, enough to send it to a friend as a present. I haven’t found that many other people who liked it as much as we do, though. As I said in my review, the last chapter was my favorite). I also liked her previous novel, The Keep.

    • I think my favorite parts were creepy Lou with the girls (young and old) and the sad Rob, in the “Out of Body” chapter (which I read somewhere was to be–or is–featured in The Best American Short Stories. That story, written in second person, has the killer sentence: “Your high is wearing off, leaving a box of lint where your head should be.” (Reminds me of James Wright’s “Little boys lie still,/ Wondering, wondering,/ Delicate little boxes of dust.”) I just read Look at Me. I was not disappointed.

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