Page and Screen – A Visit from the Goon Squad

Liam Trim with the latest ‘Page and Screen’…

Just over a year ago, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad won the Pulitzer Prize. Days later HBO snapped up the rights to the acclaimed novel. Egan apparently had HBO’s The Sopranos in mind at stages during the writing process and they have a reputation for quality television drama. On the surface then, the deal is perfect. The prize winning author can sit back, effortlessly earning more money, whilst looking forward to a reasonably faithful and decent adaptation of her vision. However, fans of the book will understandably balk at any attempt to transform it, given its extraordinary scope. Personally, I think that if it must be adapted it deserves the grander canvas of the cinema.

A Visit from the Goon Squad is the sort of book that defies summary and resists the snappy synopsis. My copy of the book vaguely declares on its back cover that “A Visit from the Goon Squad captures the moments where lives interact…”. This is as close as you can get to condensing the essence of the book into a nutshell, and even then it’s misleading. Often the “interactions” between the characters are extremely subtle, with one perhaps colliding with the memory of another. This is a novel about time, changing relationships and the modern world. Many might argue that it isn’t a novel at all, but a collection of short stories pivoting around a few key characters. Characters that are extras in one chapter become the stars of the next. Some we follow through several different generations and locations, and others we see once but never again.

A Visit from the Goon Squad has been compared to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and justifiably so. Both books have twisting narratives, with loosely connected component parts, soaring across time and space. Both authors seem to have chosen their eccentric structure just to show us that they can write capably and arrestingly in a plethora of styles. Both stories are also unique and formed from varied influences. They differ greatly. Egan’s range of styles is in many ways more impressive than Mitchell’s, because she does not limit herself to conventional forms of fiction.

Somehow she makes a celebrity interview, which becomes an account of an attempted rape, insightful, compelling and funny. The most eye catching and experimental chapter takes the form of a PowerPoint presentation. Along with these she weaves her themes through other genres of writing and modern scenarios, such as a second person chapter, a chapter about a PR consultant to a dictator, and my personal favourite, the opening chapter about a compulsive shoplifter.

Two things make A Visit from the Goon Squad a masterpiece: its modernity and its characters. Egan’s imagination has conjured up situations, scenarios and stories that shed light on the way America, and the world, is today. Her final chapter is one of the book’s weakest, but it is set in a disturbing near future that manages to say profound things about the way technology is heading. Egan’s characters are superbly drawn, spouting witty and individual dialogue and generally feeling as lifelike as possible. You watch them grow throughout the book and to an extent, you grow with them. The clarity of the prose is top quality, whisking you along to the next event in the lives of the characters. It really can’t be repeated enough, A Visit from the Goon Squad is all about the brilliance of its characterisation. Major or minor, Egan’s characters feel vivid and real. Despite its lack of an overarching story, the novel works because of its message, which Sarah Churchwell sums up in her review for The Guardian: “the people we bump against and bang into become the story of our lives.”

Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is of course being made into a film, directed by the Wachowski brothers and Tom Tykwer and starring Tom Hanks (Saving Private Ryan), Halle Berry (New Year’s Eve), Hugo Weaving (The Matrix), Hugh Grant (Notting Hill), Ben Whishaw (Layer Cake) and many more. It’s an incredibly ambitious project, taking a big artistic risk. Reaction from fans to the news of HBO’s adaptation of A Visit from the Goon Squad has been positive in some quarters, because a TV series can take its time and not cram everything into just a few hours. I sympathise with this view. It’s certainly less of a risk than the approach being taken towards Cloud Atlas.

On the other hand, how amazing does that adaptation sound? If they get it right, and it’s a big if, the filmmakers ought to have a serious awards season contender on their hands. Nothing anyone does with a camera and a screen will change the fact that these two wonderful books exist, unchanged. They can always be enjoyed as they were intended to be read. So if you’re going to bother adapting them, you may as well go for it and do something that goes beyond the book. A Visit from the Goon Squad captures something essential about living in the 21st century world. More people deserve to see it than those who subscribe to Sky Atlantic.

Liam Trim