(Through chapter 7 in A Visit from the Goon Squad)
Tim: Ok, remember (way back) when I said the first couple chapters felt like short stories? I READ ONE OF THESE CHAPTERS AS A SHORT STORY!!! I don’t remember exactly what class it was or when, but I know I read chapter four, entitled “Safari,” for a writing class sometime in college thinking it was a short story, and nothing in that reading dissuaded me from the notion. It is only now that I am made aware of my folly…if it was one…
And I realize there’s not much to talk about there, so maybe we can retitle this post from “STILL A Short Story Collection” to “Playing Hopscotch Through Time And Space” and talk about the structure at large. Because each individual chapter fires off in a new direction, and even some of the chapters, such as the safari one, play fast and loose with the characters, launching off into digressions about what will happen to them in the future.
Debby: Don’t you find it interesting that the book keeps jumping to the future, when all the characters seem to live very in-the-moment? I feel like each chapter hones in on one really specific, defining sequence of an individual’s life, yet it doesn’t always give us an accurate picture of what the next chapter/their future holds.
Tim: Well, it was interesting because for a few chapters it kept tunnelling deeper into the past. There was Bennie and the gang in high school meeting Lou, then back to Lou on the safari with his kids, and especially the safari bit shoots into the future a lot. Like, “All these things will happen to the characters sometime in the future.” But then subsequent chapters have been building back towards the “present” of the first couple chapters – which seemed to take place at roughly the same time.
Debby: So what’s the point, then? Is the author trying to emphasize how people develop over time? Or how little changes? Is she trying to underscore the different time periods that her characters are experiencing? What’s the point of jumping around?
Tim: The deeper we get into the book, the more these little vignettes make sense to me. It’s still a structure way outside the norm, but the effect is that we get to see the characters from a lot of different perspectives. We get to see what’s enduring and what’s not, because we see them old and young side by side. We get to see what’s really at the core of each person because we see both what they think of themselves and what others think of them. When you start this book, the chapters seem so disconnected, but the deeper we get in, the more you get to see of each character, and it’s just fun. I don’t think it’s particularly emphasizing any one thing, it just feels like the author is having fun with the characters, and I don’t think we can count that motivation out. The title of the book is A Visit From the Goon Squad, after all. That’s pretty playful.
Debby: Playful is a good word. Do you feel like the author was almost using this book as a writing exercise? Creating one realistic character, then asking them how they would “see” another character? (Maybe it’s something we should try!) I understand that it’s interesting, but do you think it makes this work important as a whole. As in– is there some sort of overall picture being painted that is worth viewing?
Tim: I guess that’s sort of the key question in evaluating the lasting worth of the book, isn’t it? I think to the degree that we find the characters interesting the book is successful in its goal to be a social experiment. Part of what each chapter exposes is the difficulty each one has relating to the others. Bennie and Lou both have failed marriages. I think one of the girls from Bennie’s high school group did as well, and another still lives with her mother after a drug habit. The safari chapter is all about the interlocking relationships among Lou, Rolph, Danny, and Mindy, and we see it from the perspective of each character at some point. So maybe part of what makes the book “important” (it’s the right word to use, but I hate it nonetheless) is that it makes us think about our own interconnected personal society.