A Breath of Fresh Air

Now, back to book reviewing. In the latest Australian Literary Review, of all places, Melinda Harvey shows us how it’s done. Here she is writing a review for a relatively broad audience without falling back on the populist assumption that what makes a novel worth reading is the strength (believability, plausibility, vitality) of its characters and plot. To begin with, of course, she concedes that such an assumption should play into our evaluation of a work of fiction:

For all the high jinks [of postmodern pastiche and playfulness], A Visit from the Goon Squad… cares deeply about story and character and aims to meet the reader with some modicum of approachability and sincerity. … [N]obody’s boring and everybody’s got their reasons. We are thrown into closeness with Sasha, Bennie, Rhea, Lou, Jocelyn, Scotty, Stephanie, Dolly, Jules, Rob, Ted, Alison and Alex for short but intense intervals, one at a time.

None of these characters regains the centrality they enjoy in their chapter of the novel, but most of them don’t really go away either. They hover on the periphery of their familiars’ stories, as real people do, sometimes giving off an impression that is incongruous with the one we’ve formed through near acquaintance. This treatment of character makes them more, not less, authentic and is the literary equivalent of faceting gems.

But then, she looks elsewhere to identify the real source of the pleasure of reading this novel:

Structurally speaking, A Visit from the Goon Squad is an audaciously centrifugal multi-perspective narrative, its protagonists surfacing from a loose kinfolk involved, as musicians, groupies, publicists or fans, with the music industry. I drew all kind of charts, trying to detect an overarching pattern, but there’s no predicting who will be handed the narratorial mike from chapter to chapter. Once you get over the disappointment of knowing that the character you’ve grown so close to so quickly won’t be sticking around, the excitement comes from the leaping back and forth in time and space.

So the virtue of A Visit From the Goon Squad lies not solely in its choice of subject but largely in its approach to that subject, and in the experience it generates for its readers when it takes that approach. Credit to Melinda Harvey for putting it so eloquently — and, just as importantly, for managing to write a review that manages to incorporate discussions of feminism, the literary prize culture, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, and American metafiction into an evaluation of A Visit From the Goon Squad, without losing sight of Egan’s novel and without even breaking the 2,000-word mark. Credit to the ALR, too, for publishing such an intelligent treatment of a work of fiction — although, with this being the only review of a work of fiction in all of the ALR‘s twenty-three broadsheet pages, a greater appreciation of fiction is still needed over there.

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