Friday, April 22, 2011

A Visit from the Goon Squad: Is It Candy or Is it Gum?

First things first: Congratulations to Jennifer Egan on winning the Pulitzer Prize for her story collection, A Visit from the Goon Squad. Yes, you heard it right: I'm calling Goon Squad a story collection. We didn't get it as an entry for The Story Prize*, and I didn't push to get it (nor The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman—likewise a story collection), but I recently read Egan's book for my book group, and the thirteen chapters are definitely stories. Do they work together to create a whole greater than the sum of their parts? Yes, but so do a lot of story collections. 

Novel or story collection—which is it? This brings to mind the great philosophical conundrum of my childhood: Are Razzles candy or gum? As the slogan says: "First it's candy, then it's gum." The answer for Goon Squad is similar. It falls into both camps: First it's a story collection, then it's a novel. As you read the stories, the connections among them strengthen and create a satisfying whole. In fact, it's a lot more successful at being two different things than Razzles ever was.

Here's the thing: Any good story collection will have commonalities that make the book a single, cohesive work. Nonfiction and fiction, stories and novels, poems and stories exist along a continuum. A book, like a person, can be more than one thing, and even more than two things. For instance, a collection of prose poems could also work as a story collection and as a novel and have aspects of a memoir. A nonfiction book can also verge into fiction (I'm looking at you Greg Mortenson). The same goes for genre—a book can crossover among different ones. The stories in Goon Squad have elements of science fiction/alternative reality—as did this year's Story Prize winner, Anthony Doerr's Memory Wall.**

The point is this: Labels are for marketing. Books are for readers, and labels shouldn't place limits on a book's reach. A Visit from the Goon Squad was one of the best novels published in 2010. It was also one of the best story collections, among many good ones we read in 2010.

* We, of course, remain very enthusiastic about the three books we did choose as finalists for The Story Prize (Memory Wall by Anthony Doerr (which won), Gold Boy, Emerald Girl by Yiyun Li, and Death Is Not an Option by Suzanne Rivecca). I can't say we would necessarily have picked A Visit from the Goon Squad as a finalist (Olive Kitteridge came very close, but we didn't choose that, either). Still, I wish we'd had a chance to consider it.

** The same could be said of the work of Chris Adrian, Kevin Brockmeier, George Saunders, and many others who usually fall into the literary camp. Maureen McHugh's Mothers & Other Monsters, a Story Prize finalist in 2006, seemed to carry the alternative history label, but it's also a very literary collection that deserves more attention (as do books by other authors that Small Beer Press publishes, such as Kelly Link and Karen Joy Fowler).