Oh dang, I realized, I haven't read a novel in six months.
After high school, I stopped reading fiction. And for the next several years, I would only read non-fiction. That way, it didn't feel like a waste of time, coz I was "learning" something. How productive! Honestly, the only reason I finally got back into reading fiction was so I could learn how to write stories.
When I dove back into literature, I was lucky to pick Kurt Vonnegut. His work made me see, clearly, what I'd been missing out on. Besides tackling important philosophical themes, his stories always had a huge humanist bent. Vonnegut's stories made me feel like a better person.
Once I ran out of Vonnegut to read, I searched for “humanist authors lik [sic] vonnegut”, and the internet recommended Jennifer Egan's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Visit From The Goon Squad.
Oh wow, I just realized I haven't written a "book report" since high school. What a blast to the past. Should I pad things out for a word count? Add superfluous, unnecessary, redundant adjectives everywhere? Make the periods a bigger font size? I wonder if I can squeeze the margins on this blog.
anyway um yeah, the book
[NO spoilers ahead!]
First, and the most obvious thing about Goon Squad, is its unconventional structure. Each chapter is a different short story from the perspective of different characters, in different points in time, and all their stories overlap in an intricate, deliciously confusing way.
(Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions also jumped around from character to character, but still "only" had two main characters. There are no main characters in Goon Squad. Or rather, everyone is the main character – in their own story.)
And then there's the way the chapters are written. One chapter is written in the second person, “you”. Another is written as a celebrity tabloid article. Yet another is "written" as a series of Powerpoint slides.
But that's all the obvious stuff. And they might have come off as gimmick-y, if it weren't for the way these devices were used to powerfully reinforce core humanist themes.
[this is the point where i dissect craft & technique instead of doing "actual" lit crit, because i don't know how to do that. whatever.]
Form follows function – here's how the techniques in Goon Squad (and Vonnegut's novels) were used to hammer home a few humanist ideas.
Jumping in Character: Overlapping stories from multiple perspectives is, actually, not an uncommon technique. Breakfast of Champions did it. Goon Squad just takes it to a far further degree. And in both these cases, the multiple-perspective technique delivers the core humanist message:
All of our lives are connected.
Jumping in Time: I'm not talking about the occasional flashback or flash-forward that every TV show and its spinoff has nowadays. Those tend to be gimmicky, but in Goon Squad, time-jumping is used to show what time does to people, and what people do to cope. If this novel has any main character, it's Time itself. (Vonnegut also time-jumps a lot in Slaughterhouse Five, and, not coincidentally, Time is a core theme in that novel, too.) This technique is best for reinforcing a theme about...
Time – Memory, Regret, Inevitability, Growing up
Jumping in Storytelling Style: We all tell stories about ourselves, to ourselves. Arguably, that mental narrative is the self. No better way to convey that idea, than by switching storytelling styles, as Goon Squad does. (For example, the chapter written in the second person, titled “Out of Body”, is from the perspective of a character who feels distant & dissociated from his own self.) This technique embodies the philosophy that...
We are the stories we tell ourselves.
...and that last bit just made me realize why fiction is so important. Narrative doesn't just nourish our selves, narrative might quite literally be what a "self" is made of.
I didn't plan out this "book report" in advance, I just started writing and running with it. I didn't outline a five-paragraph essay, with introduction, random point one, random point two, random point three, & introduction-copy-pasted-for-the-conclusion. Wow, no wonder I shunned fiction after I graduated. Maybe that's why a lot of people stop reading after high school, too.
The more I think about it, a story told from a single perspective isn't just limiting, it's potentially dangerous. It makes us see the world in terms of a hero, a villain, and victims. As Vonnegut writes near the end of Breakfast of Champions:
As I approached my fiftieth birthday, I had become more and more enraged and mystified by the idiot decisions made by my countrymen. And then I had come suddenly to pity them, for I understood how innocent and natural it was for them to behave so abominably, and with such abominable results: They were doing their best to live like people invented in story books. This was the reason Americans shot each other so often: It was a convenient literary device for ending short stories and books.
This raises more disturbing questions. Do single-perspective stories make it harder to teach true empathy? Are multi-perspective stories morally better to write? Maybe I'm being too dramatic, but given how prominent us-versus-them narratives are in political discourse, and how much damage they've already caused... these questions are worth considering.
In any case, I think it's great we already have lots of examples of how to tell a multi-perspective story! Novels like Goon Squad and Breakfast of Champions... but also in other media, like David Simon's The Wire, Chris Ware's Building Stories, Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, etc. (Back to my more non-fiction-y senses, I've also been thinking a lot about how agent-based modeling can be a medium that embodies empathy by default)
I think it's worth trying to create more complex, humane, multi-perspective stories, as hard as they are to write. Why? Because we are the stories we tell ourselves.
And we deserve better stories.