Craft Study: A Close Read of A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

goon squad

Title: A Visit From the Goon Squad
Author: Jennifer Egan
Genre: Fiction
Age: Adult
Part of a Series?: No

This book was suggested to me by a mentor, Sarah Braunsetin, during my first semester of my MFA program. My goal was to select one small section of the book–paragraph or chapter–and study it in exacting detail. Of all the chapter’s in the book, my favorite was “Chapter 13: Pure Language.” While there were many layers and subtleties throughout the book, it was in this chapter that the point of the book as a whole finally managed to shine through for me.

In this chapter, Egan shows us the point of view of a character we glimpsed briefly (through Sasha’s eyes) in Chapter 1: Alex. Bringing us back to this character does several things. First, it provides a sort of bookend feeling to the storyline, pulling everything together simply by ending in (the almost) same place as we started. This was accomplished “visually”, physically, and emotionally.

The “visual” bookend is pretty straightforward: both characters appear at the beginning of the book and at the end of the book. The reader “sees” them right after opening the cover and right before he or she closes the cover. Physically, each chapter was set in New York City. On a smaller scale, each chapter included related locations: Sasha’s apartment was described in both chapters, Alex was in her apartment in Chapter 1 and outside her apartment building in Chapter 13, and both interacted in a location that belonged to Bennie Salazar. Finally, there is a slightly more subtle emotional bookend. In Chapter 1, Eagan tells the story from Sasha’s point of view. Sasha spends a great deal of the chapter thinking about Alex and Bennie Salazar. In Chapter 13, Alex spends a great deal of the chapter thinking about Sasha and Bennie Salazar. This causes the characters to be connected in thoughts and emotions; each one is thinking about the other one, as well as their boss Bennie Salazar.

Overall, the bookend pair of chapters provides the reader a very direct connection that ties characters together and shines a light on the theme of the novel. With this tool in place, the reader is then able to go on and use that light to examine other aspects of the book and find the threads that tie all of the other characters to each other and the theme. It is a display of masterful skill that not only excited me as a reader, but also excited me as a writer. When I finished the book, I not only wanted to dissect each chapter, paragraph, sentence, and character, but I also discovered that I had another book (and author) to put on my “Inspirational” shelf at home.

The first place I applied my scalpel and microscope was to a scene (pages 323-325) within this same Chapter 13. The first thing I noticed when I read it through the first time (with my scalpel and microscope in hand, anyway) was the dialogue tags used by Egan. After all of the skill that I had witnessed when reading the book, I was surprised to find that Egan used a variety of dialogue tags:

  • Cara-Ann, Alex’s toddler-aged daughter, “proclaimed with guttural indignation”
  • Rebecca, Alex’s wife, “asked in the oversolicitous…way she often spoke to their daughter”
  • Cara-Ann later “commanded” and
  • Alex “barked”

These tags were all telling (as in show versus tell) statements that “repeated” what Eagan had already managed to convey through other, less-noticeable, less-obtrusive, ways. I also noticed that she had a similar habit of occasionally telling actions that would have been conveyed (showed) through the dialogue. For example, Rebecca “looked quizzically” at Alex (which was something that would easily be added or assumed by the reader due to the fact that she was asking a question of Alex in response to an unusual request made by their daughter).

Once I noticed these things, I found it hard not to stop noticing them and thinking about them, instead of being totally inside the story. I even began thinking about how often I use them and, consequently, had to resist the urge to run off to my computer and begin deleting them from my own work. I did, however, manage to resist and instead turned my attention to what is, perhaps, my favorite section of the entire book: Alex and his family watching the sunset.

To begin with, these three paragraphs have some beautiful language:

  • the wall’s rampart was exuberantly boarded
  • the sun [was] still poised, ruby-orange and yolk-like
  • they craved [the sunset]
  • a hush enclosed the crowd
  • the sun slipped away
  • the lees of sunlight on his face
  • ears full of the slosh of a passing ferry

Reading over and examining these snippets of language, along with the knowledge of other phrases and sentences that had stayed with me after reading them, I noticed several interesting techniques.

First, Egan used a high number of phrases with subtle alliteration. In addition to when the “sun slipped,” this chapter also included:

  • stretching from her sling and stabbing her pointer
  • stuttering scarecrow steps
  • Alex felt paralyzed, as if the disclosure had already been poisoned
  • the skyscrapers fell away, and the slanted sun was upon them
  • the sea of sacs and slings and baby backpacks
  • its fluorescently lit vestibule visible behind scuffed Plexiglass
  • clicking heels on the pavement punctured the quiet

While some of them were more obvious (like “stuttering scarecrow steps”), I noticed that even the subtler ones (like paralyzed and poisoned, which were far enough away from each other some people wouldn’t even count them) managed to bring the image which they created into a sharper focus. In some cases, they even managed to control the pace at which the words and the images went through my mind. “Stuttering scarecrow steps” was actually a little more difficult to say/read, causing me to slow down and really read the words and picture the way a toddler walks. “Sea of sacs and slings and baby backpacks” had a faster rhythm to it and made me picture the frenzy and confusion of a crowd, as well as they way a person’s attention will dart from one thing to another when in a crowd.

Egan also had a habit of using sensory heavy words. Reading through this book as a whole, and this chapter specifically, I noticed that there are words beyond onomatopoeias that easily invoke a sensory response from the reader.  In Chapter 13 alone I found the following words and phrases: shucked, hush, slosh, smell of baby flesh, chemical tinge, porcelain, an itch of aggravation, craggy, jagged, light that stabbed their eyes, blaze of heat, flogging the air, slicked, twanging, delicate silk, incandescent, sticky, lowing of trucks, and fiddling. All of these words, when taken in the context of their sentences, transmit multiple pieces of sensory data. When you truly look at these words, they tend to evoke a response from multiple senses. A “blaze of heat” brings to mind both the physical sensation as well as the visual image of a flare of brightness. The word “slosh” brings to mind both the sound of sloshing and the specific visual image of what water looks like when it is sloshing (versus when it is slapping or pounding, for example). “Jagged” brings to mind specifics that are both visual and tactile (sharp and rough, which can be applied to both the senses of touch and sight). While I have always known that words can evoke senses, and that a writer should try to describe things by covering the observations of multiple senses, I had never really thought about how I could do both things with one word or phrase. Egan, however, is an expert at such targeted, highly impactful words.

Finally, I saw that it was possible to use bigger, older, and less common words to great effect without having to run the risk of sounding old, snobbish, or like the piece was written with a thesaurus close at hand. In fact, when I came across words that aren’t part of society’s everyday language (like “rampart”), I found that they actually did an amazing job of evoking emotional connotations as well as providing a more specific description. In the case of rampart, the fact that I normally associate it with castles caused me to think about times when life was harder for humans to survive, protection, confinement, thick and impenetrable walls, and even separation (separating what is inside the wall from what is outside the wall). Other parts of this scene had already managed to convey the idea that life in Alex’s world (a somewhat futuristic New York) was not as safe or predictable as the world we live. Choosing to describe the Waterwalk, where everyone gathered to watch the sunset that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to see, as “the wall’s boarded rampart” simply drives home the differences between Alex’s life and the reader’s life. What must it be like to live in a world where people must be protected from something at the expense of being separated from the beauty of a sunset?

You will Like This if…:

  • You are looking for a thought-provoking story that may take more than one read through to grasp everything
  • Like multiple points of view (this story not only switches point of view characters every chapter, but also switches from first person to third person and even second person)
  • Like books with many different point of view characters

Goodreads Reviews: 3.63 Stars (13,422 Reviews)
Amazon Reviews: 3.5 Stars (902 Reviews)
My Rating: 5 Stars
I have to say, I really love this book and plan to read it many times over the coming years. That said, this book is not going to be for everyone. It is unique–bordering on odd–for the majority of the book, and only (for me) made sense at the very end. However, there is some beautiful poetry, great social commentary, and very strong, creative techniques used in the writing of this novel. If you are willing to work at reading a book and/or waiting until the end before everything clicks into place, this book is definitely worth the effort.

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