Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Defying and Redefining Structure

Jennifer Egan, author of A Visit from the Goon Squad, has further complicated the concept of genre! Although the book is marketed as a novel, Egan has stated that she neither considers her book a novel nor a collection of short stories. The structural genius of Goon Squad lies in Egan’s ability to synthesize two literary forms: the short story and the novel. Each chapter of Goon Squad can stand alone as an individual work of fiction, though the stories work much better when read together as a complete work of intricate character development. Largely inspired by an eclectic combination of themes from The Sopranos and Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Egan masterfully brings secondary characters to the forefront of the action (similar to The Sopranos), allowing the reader to delve into the intimate thoughts and feelings of characters that would ordinarily be easily forgotten.

Egan spotlights and extrapolates the significance of the narrative structure of Goon Squad in a particularly effective way via Mindy’s (Lou’s girlfriend during the family trip to Kenya) doctoral research of structural relationships and emotional responses dictated by said relationships. Mindy cites Claude Levi Strauss, who applied Saussure’s work of structural linguistics to anthropology, setting the stage for structural anthropology. Strauss essentially sought to unearth the underlying logic of cultural adaptation from “primitive” to modern, thus unlocking the universal truths behind socio-cultural systems (of all times) spanning the globe. Mindy worries that her research may simply be a regurgitation of Strauss’ theory—“a refinement; a contemporary application” (64).

Mindy interprets the tumultuous family dynamics of Lou’s family and her place therein through the lens of her studies: structural resentment, structural affection, structural incompatibility, structural desire, and structural dissatisfaction. Egan significantly chooses the name, Chronos for the bassist in one of Lou’s bands, The Mad Hatters. In the spirit of reckless competition—Structural Fixation, according to Mindy—Chronos exits the safari vehicle and is viciously attacked by a lioness. In Greek mythology, Chronos--the etymological root of chronology, asynchronous, anachronistic, etc.--a personification of eternal time, is the Titan king who devours the Olympian gods—the past cannibalizing the future in order to supplant the future generation. Hence Egan has designated a highly symbolic meaning to a third-rate character, which serves to elaborate the motif of nostalgically clinging to the glories of the past: Lou’s downfall.

Several chapters later, in “Pure Language,” Egan subtly juxtaposes Mindy’s structuralist approach with that of Lulu’s (another minor character) aversion to metaphorical uncertainty. Mindy advocates a Say. The. Thing. approach, which praises truncated language in the form of text messages, a pure language with “no philosophy, no metaphors, no judgments” (321). Rather than seeking an underlying system of classification, as the goal of structuralism dictates, Lulu bypasses moral certitude and disingenuous metaphors (DM) in favor of ambitious conviction, freed from “atavistic purism,” which looks to the past for an “ethically perfect state, which not only doesn’t exist and never existed, but it’s usually used to shore up the prejudices of whoever’s making the judgments” (319). As every moral issue can be seen as judgment-based, Lulu’s mentality harkens back to Social Darwinism, wherein the strong overcome the weak in the rat race of corporate idealism.

Lulu’s embrace of capitalistic efficiency—freed from the bonds of the moral degradation of the poor by the dominance of the wealthy—significantly occurs in the near future of the novel, circa 2022. Alex’s wife, Rebecca also has an interest in language and social structures, as her research probes “the phenomenon of word casings,” which asks perplexing questions: “how had ‘American’ become an ironic term?” How had democracy come to be used in an arc, mocking way?” (324).

Egan refrains from simply producing yet another trendy postmodern work of fiction that frustratingly laments the loss of identity. Rather, Goon Squad, with the polyphonic aura of several conflicting viewpoints on the nature of redemption, reflection, and acceptance, prompts the reader to focus upon the pauses in the soundtrack of life, where we may consider our place in time, knowing that it one day must end, but not yet…



  1. Not only is Egan blurring the line between genres like novel and short story, she adds in genres like magazine articles and even a PowerPoint. These formats allow Egan to further break from traditional storytelling structures and dive to the heart of the story as well as give an insight to the types of people that narrate these different genres (Such as Ally Blake using a PowerPoint partially to symbolize the advancement of technology and how that might affect storytelling itself).

  2. I think it's great that you bring up genre. I think we're seeing more and more of that. It really made me think of Roxane Gay's "Bad Feminist," because even though its a collection of essays, the book started off as a series of social commentary on her Tumblr account. Because it's so interconnected throughout, it's weird to think of it as one thing, although it works just as well either way. I think Goon Squad does the same thing. One could easily read each section like a short story, but each piece definitely contributes to the bigger picture.