A Visit from the Goon Squad app

Review by Jonathan Gibbs

Production credits: PopLeaf
Launch date: 23 March 2011

Jennifer Egan’s new novel ‘A Visit From The Goon Squad’ hasn’t been short of good reviews, but one thing that has been remarked on over and over again is the book’s audacious structure. Covering fifty years in thirteen chapters, it performs an energetic series of backwards and forwards leaps through time, twisting and spinning in mid-air to present its recurring cast of characters from a giddy variety of perspectives.

Now publishers Constable and Robinson have produced an iPhone and iPad app which gives us the book, but with a crucial addition that goes well beyond the usual sync-to-audio book and smattering of extraneous material (though it has both of those too). And no, for those of you who already know the book is set largely in and around the US music industry, it’s not a soundtrack, though Egan does include suggested listening.

The app’s USP is to do with the book’s structure. Egan sets each of her thirteen chapters in a specific moment in time, from the early 1970s up to the mid 2020s, and bounces almost randomly between her half dozen or so central characters, with no one turning up in more than seven or so of the chapters. In a way, the novel itself exists in the spaces between the chapters, in the connections the reader is encouraged to draw between characters seen at different stages in their lives and from different perspectives.

As I was reading it, in physical form, I was reminded of BS Johnson’s experimental 1969 novel ‘The Unfortunates’, which famously comes in the form of 27 unbound sections in a box, to be read more or less in any order – Johnson suggests a beginning and an ending, but lets you sort the middle out yourself. Surely, I thought, ‘Goon Squad’ would work just as well this way.

Then, as if in answer to my wishes, along came the Goon Squad app, developed by Cambridge-based PopLeaf. Its USP is that it allows you to reorder the chapters at the flick of a button – a literary ‘shuffle mode’ – or alternatively put them in date order. This second is interesting, because although I had a stab at ordering the chapters chronologically myself, when I was reading the book in fixed, print form, some of the markers are too vague for me to be absolutely sure of my version.

It’s the shuffle mode, though, that’s more interesting from a literary-theoretical point of view, making the book in its digital form a more protean thing than its paper cousin. It comes admirably close to the definition of an ‘open art work’ (Umberto Eco’s phrase) – one which hands over the production of its many possible meanings to the reader, rather than insisting on the author’s own interpretation. Not that every book would be improved by randomly shuffling its chapters; far from it, it’s just that ‘Goon Squad’, with its very fluid connectivity between different characters, different geographies, different eras and scenes, seems to fit it so well.

So it’s a genuine disappointment to find that these two features (the ‘date order’ and the ‘random shuffle’) are only available to the app user once they’ve read the book through in the ‘correct’ order. i.e. it’s an add-on feature, an amusing way of playing with the text once you’ve consumed it in the approved manner, rather than a radical opening up of the text to multiple meanings. Because, however much you may try to avoid it, that first reading will imprint itself on your brain – and to be fair to Egan’s narrative sense, the opening four chapters do have a definite, and an appealing rhythm to them, moving as they do step by step further into the past, almost like a descending musical scale. Beyond them, however, the chapters seem to float freer of the author’s grasp, and who’s to say that other orderings wouldn’t work equally well?

All well and good, you might say. The app is undoubtedly good value, especially when you consider that the audiobook – replicated in the app’s audio version – will set you back £22 on CD. The most textually experimental chapter, which takes the form of a teenager’s PowerPoint journal, is clearly superior on screen than on the page (it’s in full colour, for a start). And with a little trial and error I can reveal that it’s possible to zip through the chapters in a few minutes, without actually reading them, to unlock the shuffle mode, and so come at the ‘randomized’ novel absolutely fresh. It’s just a shame that the app doesn’t have the nerve to fully grasp the possibility that the digital format offers it.

£7.99 / $13.99

A Visit From the Goon Squad

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