• April 4, 2011


  • Jonathan Franzen

    2A Visit From the Goon Squad

    Jennifer Egan

  • Judged by

    C. Max Magee
    + All Judges

A Visit From the Goon Squad

C. Max Magee: I’m already imagining the headlines if Freedom wins this thing: “Hip Online Book Tourney Spills More Ink For Time Coverboy—Cranky White-Guy Novelist Re-Re-Ratified As No. 1.” And then the predictable wrap-ups about how Franzen’s portrayals of gentrification, infidelity, and clammy-handed concern about SUVs and suburban sprawl have made him the Voice of a Generation. Followed by, of course, the backlash to the backlash to the backlash. I’m kind of hoping my fellow judges just hand the trophy to Jennifer Egan and call it a day.

But then the problem with all the Franzen backlash is that it feels so much more scripted than the supposedly tired Franzen-ian tics we’re railing against. The baron of backlash (and another cranky white guy) B.R. Myers led with the same complaint you see in all those disaffected Amazon reviews: “One opens a new novel and is promptly introduced to some dull minor characters. Tiring of them, one skims ahead to meet the leads, only to realize: those minor characters are the leads.”

If you think these characters are dull, though, you aren’t paying attention. There really are plenty of novelists out there who merely dip a toe into the malaise of the suburban liberal, but it’s Franzen who plumbs the depths, and rises above those other novelists to be the one we all talk about, love, and/or love to hate.

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When I sat down to reread Freedom—this time knowing the full arc (some might say horror) of what lay ahead of the Berglunds—I wanted right away to flag Patty down on Barrier Street to tell her to give Joey some breathing room. And for God’s sake, steer clear of Richard! Which is to say, the book awakened my instinct to give people advice. Leaving aside that this is probably an annoying habit, it’s rare that I feel compelled to unleash my wisdom on fictional people. Such are the characters Franzen creates; they’re human through and through.

And yet… and yet… It’s not enough for Franzen to push these cranky, flawed, complicated (but not dull) people into conflict, crisis, and brief moments of joy. He must also trot out his old anxieties. Here he endeavors mightily to work his creations into America as we know it. And so we have George W. Bush and Jeff Tweedy, Halliburton and Tupac, neocons and Twitter, all jarring you out of the Berglunds’ world and into Franzen’s.

With The Corrections, Franzen was perhaps lucky to have trained his critical eye on the world at the turn of the millennium, when the stakes felt lower. Now there’s terror and war and ever-more-impending global environmental doom to ruin your day, every day. Franzen (feeling, I suspect, as beleaguered by current events as poor Walter Berglund) must compulsively cram all his concerns into this big book. Like when callous Joey looks around at the books in the library where he works and thinks disdainfully, “There was no way it all wouldn’t be digitized within the next few years.” And we know from Franzen’s New Yorker piece (and subsequent New Yorker podcast) just how exercised he is about threatened songbird species. But we wish he’d save Walter’s ornithology oratory for his nonfiction.

Still, Franzen more than balances out the preaching with his invigorating detours into weirdness—e.g., the toilet episode—and his arresting brushes with core human truths, as when Patty notes, “There are few things harder to imagine than other people’s conversations about yourself.”

If only I could have that kind of tortured, challenging relationship with every novel I read. Freedom frustrated me a lot, but I loved it.

Then again, I loved A Visit From the Goon Squad too.

First of all, the title is bodacious, and its abbreviation became something like a secret password for the literary set. “Goon Squad,” we readers whispered to each other with knowing looks all summer and into the fall. Uninitiated passersby probably thought we were talking about a Mafia flick or a punk band.

I liked the first half of Goon Squad the most. The book’s early stories ached with feeling and tension. Egan picks up Sasha, Rhea, Bennie, Lou, and Rolph, each so close to the edge of his or her own collapse that she makes the reader feel dangerously close, too. The book’s B-side is given over to a formal playfulness and looser plots that include a David Foster Wallace riff, a fictionalized post-colonial dictator, some near-future science fiction, and the famous PowerPoint story. It is perhaps fitting that I found these B-sides to be less successful than the stories earlier in the book.

Calling Goon Squad a novel in stories, as it is sometimes billed, does it a disservice. The book is more like a scaffold. Each story is a platform connected by the structure Egan has erected, but, in the form of little bits of exposition within the stories, she also sends ladders shooting higher and ropes hanging lower, moving the characters decades into future where they may or may not meet again. The scaffold suggests the heft of a much larger design behind it. And, to extend this metaphor further, isn’t it true that an intricate, possibly hazardous scaffolding is sometimes more interesting to behold than the massive building to which it is affixed?

Perhaps when I read books as pairs, I subconsciously look for parallels, but these two books are sufficiently compatible that you could fit the whole of Goon Squad into Freedom without a single misstep, creating a massive novel of gentrification, malaise, nostalgia, and low-grade technophobia after the turn of the millennium. Just insert a few scenes in which nearly washed-up record producer Bennie Alvarez tries to kick-start aging rocker Richard Katz’s career and call the whole thing Freedom from the Goon Squad.

While the suggestion that Freedom could swallow Goon Squad implies that I found something lacking in Egan’s novel-in-stories format, that it was missing the literal and figurative heft of Freedom, the book was nimble in a way that Freedom wasn’t. Where Freedom is a novel of oversharing, telling many episodes from several angles, Goon Squad, often to its benefit, floats us among characters and across decades.

With Goon Squad, I wanted more while simultaneously knowing that having more might make the book less extraordinary. This is a good thing in many ways, but this tension was also the book’s biggest negative for me. Upon finishing, there were more plot threads I wanted to keep following and characters whose stories I wanted further filled out.

And now I feel like I’m still writing because I can’t decide whom I should give my vote to.

To forestall my decision a little further, let me just say thank you to The Morning News for putting on such an awesome literary spectacle, which I know is a real logistical bear to organize. Thanks as well to Kevin and John in the booth, whose commentary is the steady, thumping, funky, and incredibly necessary bass line behind the judges’ impassioned air guitar.


So, because it is big, messy, flawed, enraging, and engrossing, and because we need so many more books that have those qualities, I choose Freedom! Cue the backlash.

C. Max Magee created and edits The Millions. He is co-editor of The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books. Known connections to this year’s contenders: “Aimee Bender, Marcy Dermansky, Emma Donoghue, Jennifer Egan, James Hynes, Paul Murray, and Lionel Shriver have all written pieces for the website I edit. In most cases, this also means I may have exchanged an email or two with the aforementioned writers.”

[Freedom 1 • A Visit From the Goon Squad 0]

Catherine George: I followed the same trajectory through two-thirds of both books. Beginning: elation. The first three stories in Goon Squad are perfect; in Freedom, Patty’s journal made me believe the hype. Middle: mild disappointment with the fuzzy hat dictator and Joey’s horsey vacation. Then came the end. Last three stories in Goon Squad? Perfect again. Patty and Walter’s dark days? I couldn’t believe I’d ever wanted to read a book about these two, let alone know their romantic fate. A strong finish gives the point to Goon Squad.

[Freedom 1 • A Visit From the Goon Squad 1]

Anthony Doerr: From a certain angle these books feel the same: well-made realistic fiction zeroing in on American bourgeoisie. Sharp detailing. A smattering of jokes. Searing observations about suburbia. The structure of Goon Squad, though, is more interesting: it seesaws, it whorls, it pivots. Which of these two books might help, to borrow Zadie’s Smith’s clause, “shake the novel out of its present complacency?” Egan’s.

[Freedom 1 • A Visit From the Goon Squad 2]

Kate Ortega: The gist of A Visit From the Goon Squad is that time, the goon squad, wreaks havoc on life’s successes and takes the sting out of its failures. This is also the heart of the plot of Freedom. But Franzen does a better job at the theme; his book lets us wallow in his characters’ missteps, loves, and tragedies over decades; Egan’s collected individual tales (though lovely) put too much work on the reader’s shoulders.

[Freedom 2 • A Visit From the Goon Squad 2]

Jennifer Weiner: Oh, man. Pun intended. Jonathan Franzen and the boys’ club that backed him, on one side; Jennifer Egan, who published part of Goon Squad in an “anti-chick lit” anthology, on the other. It’s like Sophie’s Choice, if Sophie hated both her kids. Worse, neither book was any fun. Freedom’s characters range from loathsome to despicable, with the author’s contempt dripping from every sentence. Egan’s book seemed more like an exercise in Let Me Show You How Clever I Am than anything as lowbrow as entertainment. But Egan gets my vote, because if Franzen takes the prize, then the terrorists win (and because even if he doesn’t, you know the Los Angeles Times will run his picture anyhow).

[Freedom 2 • A Visit From the Goon Squad 3]

Rosecrans Baldwin: Terrific books. They both succeed at their plans, and I enjoyed both of them, but I loved only one. Freedom dramatizes an incredible amount of life. Even during its dumb moments, or when stretches were flat, it still fed the main reason I love reading novels: to go deeply into other souls.

[Freedom 3 • A Visit From the Goon Squad 3]

Sarah Manguso: I’m grateful for both of these books, and I’m glad to judge such an even fight this time. But now I have to make a choice, so here are my criteria: Both books use multiple points of view, but I found Goon Squad more convincingly multivocal; only Egan’s prose yielded sentences that made it into my commonplace book; Franzen made me weep for lost love, but Egan reminded me that death is coming.

[Freedom 3 • A Visit From the Goon Squad 4]

Hamilton Leithauser: Sooo…. Me again with the old Goon Squad and Freedom. Well, it’s an honor to be the only judge whose decision didn’t mean squat. I chose Freedom the first time because the characters are dynamic and convincing. I feel like I actually know some of the people in the book. Wait—I think I actually do know some of the people in the book! Maybe Goon Squad’s entertainment types—credible in their own right—just weren’t folks I needed to spend time with. In Freedom, I was wary of Richard Katz from his first appearance, but because the surrounding cast was so convincing, I was much more entertained by Richard’s lackadaisical and self-centered agenda as he banged his friend’s wife and dragged out a tedious rock career (oh, jeez) than Bennie Salazar’s disconnect and sort-of redemption with his son, his assistant, and a long-lost bandmate. Anyhow, once again, congratulations to both authors!

[Freedom 4 • A Visit From the Goon Squad 4]

John Williams: Egan’s refracted structure seems only half-necessary, and I’m not sure that in 2011 it’s as innovative as it’s gotten credit for. The last, dystopian-ish chapter bothered me. Still, she writes some fine sentences, and I even bought the PowerPoint chapter, which shocked me. As for Franzen, I’m in the “honestly befuddled” camp. It would take me 4,000 words to fairly explain why. I can’t imagine revisiting a single paragraph in Freedom. My vote: Goon.

[Freedom 4 • A Visit From the Goon Squad 5]

John Roderick: Due to family events beyond his control, John was unable to write up a judgment by press time, but he was able to complete both books and pass along his decision.—ed.

[Freedom 5 • A Visit From the Goon Squad 5]

Jessica Francis Kane: I love books in which the author disappears. I love books that make me forget I’m reading. I don’t want chapters to begin with show-offy page-long sentences or be told as PowerPoint presentations. The story never needs those fancy tricks—the reader ends up paying more attention to the form than the story. On these grounds, I didn’t love either book, not at all, but I choose Egan over Franzen because I did admire how she manhandled time, that goon.

[Freedom 5 • A Visit From the Goon Squad 6]

Matthew Baldwin: In the first round I decided against Super Sad True Love Story in its second paragraph, so you’ll be pleased to hear that I made it all the way to page 11 of Freedom—in which Jonathan Franzen describes a child as “like an imaginary friend who happened to be visible”—before declaring it the winner. I think I’ve really grown as a critic.

[Freedom 6 • A Visit From the Goon Squad 6]

Radhika Jones: I love both of these books. I think they both succeed on their own terms. So the question for me is, which of those terms lie closer to my heart? As much as I adore big sprawling novels, I’m a nut for form, the more rigorous and inventive the better. And that leads me to the Goon Squad.

[Freedom 6 • A Visit From the Goon Squad 7]

Matt Dellinger: These books were like cocktail cousins made with the same liquor: a Manhattan and an Old Fashioned. A Visit from the Goon Squad is the more concocted, more garnished drink (e.g., the PowerPoint chapter). It’s wonderfully balanced and beautifully made. Freedom is the high-octane classic, not as easy to drink (e.g., 562 pages), but its seriousness delivers more wallop in the end. Goon Squad delighted me; Freedom clobbered me. The martini beats the Tom Collins.

[Freedom 7 • A Visit From the Goon Squad 7]

Michele Filgate: If there’s one thing I like, it’s an easy decision. It’s true that Freedom is a good novel, but measured against Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad? There’s no comparison. Egan’s novel is innovative and playful, while simultaneously smart and captivating. I was fascinated by the way she played around with point of view. While Franzen wrote a somewhat predictable though solid novel, Egan wins for her vibrant prose and style.

[Freedom 7 • A Visit From the Goon Squad 8]

Elif Batuman: Goon Squad is trickier, more varied, and more formally inventive than Freedom. It grew on me, with its dazzling accretion of small, precise components. Freedom, however, sucked me in from page one. Its central issues—the good versus the cool; how to reconcile sex with normal life; how to live—are particularly close to my heart these days. With two books this good, the choice comes down to personal preference, and mine is for Freedom.

[Freedom 8 • A Visit From the Goon Squad 8]

Andrew Womack: How fortunate to find two books in the championship so comparable—both spanning decades (or beyond) and heavily centered on music. For me, this decision comes down to pacing, and Franzen is the Pink Floyd to Egan’s Sex Pistols; by the end of Freedom I couldn’t take another meandering guitar solo, while I was dazzled by how much Goon Squad packed into such a compact space.

[Freedom 8 • A Visit From the Goon Squad 9]

A Visit From the Goon Squad

THIS YEAR’S CHAMPION: A Visit From the Goon Squad