Tuesday, August 2, 2011

How Did Our Book Club Discussion Go? Jennifer Egan's "A Visit from the Goon Squad."

I was reading A Visit from the Goon Squad on my way down to the gift show on Sunday, when I ran into Lynn and Lisa from Beans and Barley.  More on the show in another post; we're now talking about Egan. Lynn told me that her book club had just read the book last week and had an terrific discussion.  This got me psyched for Monday.  Who wants a bad discussion?

Amusingly enough, people are consistently thinking that I've already read the novel. I  think it's because we wrote about A Visit from the Goon Squad a lot at Boswell. As it piled on awards, stayed on top of our bestseller lists, and even when we ran into the author in Brooklyn, there always seemed to be another reason for a mention.  But I hadn't read it, and as folks know, the in-store lit group's alternate name could be "What Daniel missed out on and feels bad about."

There's another reason why folks think I've already read A Visit from the Goon Squad.  A novel that you could argue was a collection of short stories? Check.  Structural creativeness? Check. Heck, the most-talked about chapter of the book is told in Powerpoint, and Egan tells that it almost didn't make it into the novel. A great sense of humor? Check. One of my first thoughts was, "Oh, this reminds me a bit of Frederick Reiken's Day for Night, with its gray sense of morality and playful sharing of themes and ideas, connections and coincidences,  I know you're shocked. I'll look at a piece of toast and it will remind me of something in that novel. Sigh.

The beauty of A Visit from the Goon Squad is as it rolls around in your head, the themes and connections, all start gelling. There's so much of this novel that plays off of music--the songs that make up an album, the technological change, and of course the way you don't generally fall in love with a song the first time you hear it; it's the second or third time that it plays that you freak out about the whole thing. I go back and read a story that I didn't quite get the first time around. Egan's narrative bubbles around in my head and gets better and better.

Did everyone like the book? No, there were a few negative folks. That's not bad; the best discussion is when people are divided. What was more interesting was that half the folks in the group who wound up loving Egan's novel would probably not have picked it up if it hadn't been our monthly selection. Even with all the awards, there are probably some audiences that need to be force fed the Goon. That said, I looked at Above the Treeline, and sales and a good number of indie booktores are monstrous, triple platinum and all that.

Suzanne was in love; this a book for my generation.  Egan totally understand her connection to music. I think she wondered what someone might think of the book who was younger.  Whereas Judy thought this was a book she could share with her kids.  She found it one of the more moving and profound books we've read of late.  Carolyn #1, on the other hand, had trouble with the book, and she did find herself thinking she was too old for it. I think Carolyn #2 is going to revisit, as the twisted plot and reoccurring characters got a bit confusing.  Where the heck is our scorecard? Julie didn't like it so much, but Anne and Nancy did (I know what you're thinking, but Heart did not attend the discussion), and both mentioned they never, ever would have picked up Egan's novel on their own.

It turned out to be a great conversation, just like Lynn promised. Just one interesting avenue of discussion was the reinvention of several of the characters' lives.  Was that necessarily akin to redemption? Why, to one reader, was having an affair less forgivable than doing successful PR for a murderous dictator, salvaging his reputation by convincing him to wear a jaunty hat? I could write a very, very long blog post about this, but I'd probably give away too much.  But if I may say that even if you're not in a book club, this is a book that gets better after you talk about it--so hook up with someone and start bouncing ideas off each other.

And Gloria found a book that she liked the second time around. Hooray!

If you're discussing A Visit from the Goon Squad with your book club, I would highly recommend reading at least one of Jennifer Egan's interviews. Here's the one in The GuardianOh, and the website details the origins of all the components of the books, as well as some chapter-stories that didn't make it into the final novel.  Truly fascinating. And here are our upcoming in-store lit group discussions:

Monday, September 5, 11 am (yes, this is Labor Day):
Into the Beautiful North, by Luis Alberto Urrea
A comic novel filled with magical realism about a Mexican woman's search for the men who've disappeared from her town.

Monday, October 3, 7 pm:
The story of a troubled marriage set amidst the political turmoil of 1950s Trinidad.

No comments: