“Redemption, transformation—God how she wanted these things. Every day, every minute. Didn’t everyone?”
On April 15, 2013—a day that will live infamy now—the Pulitzer committee awarded the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction to Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son. As the very real threat of a nuclear war with North Korea looms on the horizon, and while bombs were exploding at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, a novel about survival in the midst of the North Korean dictatorship took home America’s top literary prize.
As has become the tradition of The Pulitzer Project, Joshua and I turned to the previous winner of the big Prize to celebrate the announcement of the new recipient.
Since, for the first time since the 1970’s, 2012 didn’t see a Pulitzer winner, we turned to 2011’s Prize-winning novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan.
Joshua defied all expectations and finished this book in an astonishing two or three days. It took me a little bit longer—five days. It’s been several days since I finished it. It’s taken me this long to write a post about it, though, because I’m still reeling from the experience; I’m still coming down from the high; still recovering from the dizzying effect this book had on me.
This book instantly became the subject of much heated conversation between the two of us; while we definitely discuss each book we read with each other, this one generated a lot of excitement and a lot of passion in our talks. Egan’s writing reached deep down into both of our souls and stirred up something that neither of us quite recognized or knew what to do with once we encountered it.
In terms of tone, in terms of style, in terms of characters, emotion, feeling, dialogue, this book truly ranges the full spectrum. For such a small book, for what is (really) a collection of short stories that have a common thread running through them and tying them together, and for such short stories (each chapter is about 10-12 pages on average), the book is epic in scope.
Egan doesn’t pull any punches, either. She drags her characters through the mud, kicking and screaming, she runs them through the wringer, she bends them over barrels, and she takes the reader along with them for the ride. In all honesty, this is not an enjoyable book—it is painful, brutal, agonizingly cruel, and, most impressively, all too real. And that’s what makes the book work.
For a piece of fiction that is so damn hard to get through, it really was a breeze of a read (as I mentioned before, I finished it in just a few days and Joshua finished it even quicker than that). I think that’s because the characters found herein are so frustratingly, infuriatingly, but, ultimately, lovably human. I have never cared so much about characters I hated so much. None of them have them many good qualities and, in fact, some of them are even downright loathsome; but Egan’s writing is so persuasive, so effected, so mesmerizing, and so truthful that I came to have a deep love, affection, and concern for each character’s outcome.
Furthermore, Egan’s writing is so pitch-perfect that I found myself trusting her, and willing to follow her wherever she went. There is some content in this book that is just excruciatingly horrific (like a rape scene that is laced with very, very macabre humor); that, ordinarily, I wouldn’t be able to stomach. However, I trust the author so much that I dug in and got through it. There were several chapters that made me stop to catch my breath and recover, but I couldn’t stop myself from diving back into the cesspool of the human condition that Egan so brilliantly details page after page.
I feel like I should at least address a few things in the book that I’ve left out of this review thus far. Because they’re pretty important.
Stylistically, this book fires on all cylinders. Egan employs a different style of writing for each chapter; she switches from first to second to third person effortlessly, she narrates as both woman and man, she writes one section like a magazine columnist, in text messge format, and one chapter is even written in the style of a Powerpoint presentation (as is well-documented all over the Internet, so I’m not going to get into it any further here).
Some things work, some things don’t (it’s not a perfect novel after all). But it is definitely one of the most interesting, groundbreaking, and (I’d dare say) ambitious novels to win the Pulitzer Prize. Egan wanted to do a lot of different things and, bless her heart, she went for it.
Furthermore, I think it’s important to note (and this is a point I made to Joshua and a few other friends) that this is the first Pulitzer-winner that was written for my generation. She name drops popular bands of my generation, she directly references current phenomenons like text messaging and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, and even her voice speaks directly to my generation.
No, this isn’t my favorite book to win a Pulitzer, but it is definitely the one that I’ve connected with the most. And what’s particularly exciting about this book is how much it sticks out from the rest of its fellow award-winners. It is completely unlike any of the nearly 90 novels that came before it. A truly extraordinary work of fiction and truly exemplary of post-postmodern writing.
My only hope is that A Visit from the Goon Squad is also a signpost of things to come for the Pulitzer Prize.