:: Article

The Stars Are Indispensable

By Max Dunbar.


A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan, Constable 2011

‘I picture it like Judgement Day… We’ll rise up out of our bodies and find each other again in spirit form. We’ll meet in that new place, all of us together, and first it’ll seem strange, and pretty soon it’ll seem strange that you could ever lose someone, or get lost.’

Of all the things that make up a great story, pacing is probably the most important, but also the trickiest to define. What builds momentum up and keeps it going? What makes situation flow into situation, and makes the reader’s attention flow with it? What is it that keeps the reader awake and reading past midnight when s/he has to be up for a job interview at six? What, in Stephen King‘s words, turns coherence into a song?

David Mitchell‘s Ghostwritten is a series of episodes with huge variations in time and place. We get narration from a disembodied spirit that can enter humans at will, a snapshot of Communist Europe, a radio DJ commentary on the apocalypse. Each story is linked by a reference to the previous, and it’s the perfunctory of this linkage that makes Ghostwritten fall short as a novel: the book is full of marvellous concepts and vistas that nevertheless do not add up to anything whole.

In A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan achieved what David Mitchell could not. Her novel is a dance through the music of the near future and recent past. Characters come and go, things get resolved or stay open, and we get a palpable feel of the business of lives in time – busy like a swarm of midges or the summer air on your face. There is a sense of the erratic human perception of time, which is something that is hard to convey. Egan is fond of thumbnail summaries. She’ll write about a specific moment in a character’s life and then capture the flurry of the character’s future in a few quick sentences. Here’s the teenage Charlie, on an African safari trip with her father Lou and his mistress:

Four years from now, at eighteen, she’ll join a cult across the Mexican border whose charismatic leader promotes a diet of raw eggs; she’ll nearly die from salmonella poisoning before Lou recognises her. A cocaine habit will require partial reconstruction of her nose, changing her appearance, and a series of feckless, domineering men will leave her solitary in her late twenties, trying to broker peace between Rolph and Lou, who will have stopped speaking.

It feels at first like a riff and a device, but Egan uses it to deeper ends. Rolph’s suicide gets a single line in one of these flash forwards, and this signifies that the standout moments from our lives are not the great days of marriage and births and deaths, but the isolated trivialities on dates we can’t even remember.

Egan also captures how slippery time feels. Another child lives out on the California desert, and goes for a walk with her father. There are solar panels on the way back to her home and she gets a sudden fear that the panels speed up time, that ‘I’m a grown up woman coming back to this place after many years. It’s a broken-down ruin with no one in it. That my parents are gone, and our house isn’t ours anymore.’ How fast that pretty pony can gallop when it gets going. How our lives come to feel like city and countryside glimpsed from a speeding train.

The first chapter ‘Found Objects’ introduces Sasha, a kleptomaniac who steals her date’s wallet. In New York Sasha is nothing but a record company receptionist in therapy, but she is the mistress of the dance and the keystone of the novel. We see her as a runaway turning tricks in Naples, a volatile and pill-happy university student, and finally as a wife and mother at some approximation of piece. ‘I don’t know why she likes junk so much,’ her daughter Alison says. ”Not junk,’ Mom will say. ‘Tiny pieces of our lives.”

There’s so much good in this book it’s hard to know where to begin or end. The comic highlight is the chapter ‘Selling the General’ in which a good hearted PR solo is forced to improve the image of a war criminal so that she can pay her daughter’s school fees. After persuading her client to wear a blue hat at exactly the right angle (‘He will not longer wear this hat.’ ‘He has to wear the hat’) headlines appear in the press, suggesting the general’s war crimes were exaggerated: ‘He looked sweet in the hat. How could a man in a fuzzy blue hat have used human bones to pave his roads?’

There’s also a Heat-style interview with a pneumatic young celebrity which turns the focus on the interlocutor rather than the subject. We quickly realise that the interviewer, Jules Jones, is a failed novelist, who has just staggered from the wreck of a longterm relationship, and is gradually losing his mind. The interview culminates in a farcical rape attempt on his subject, rationalised in a string of lengthening footnotes, and it turns out that he’s writing the article from prison. (The disturbing nature of this is blunted by the fact that we’ve already seen the beginnings of Jules’s redemption in the previous chapter.)

Many writers try this kind of experimental stuff; few manage to use it to a purpose. But Egan’s penultimate chapter ‘Great Rock and Roll Pauses’ is in the form of a PowerPoint presentation and is one of the most moving things I’ve read. It’s narrated by a teenage girl – the same girl who was afraid of solar panels – and starts off by talking about the seconds of silence in rock songs: Garbage’s ‘Supervixen’ is ‘unique, because the pauses happen when there’s no rest in the music.’ But then the slides move on to the tensions and sadnesses in the family: ‘Familiar things falls back over me like the softest, oldest blanket. I start to cry.’

And yet there is a real love and happiness here. The college boy quoted at the beginning of this piece is just asserting the fantasy we all have, that all the missed connections can be repaired and all wounds healed, that there will be a place where you can set in train the potential of everything you could have had, and see all the old ghosts: How are you? How was it for you? Egan makes it clear that all we take to the grave are those ‘frozen, hectic instants’ of a life – but that these instants are valuable, all the same.


Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, April 27th, 2011.