There is an argument surrounding A Visit From the Goon Squad whether it is a novel or a collection of linked short stories. This gray area is a main reason I loved the story. It jumps in time, switches character perspective, and at times feels plain messy. Messy in a very tidy way. Just when I thought I was getting lost and confused, Egan would slip in a quick reference to time or character that would ground me again.
In a Nutshell
A Visit From the Goon Squad is not an easy plot to summarize. The main character changes from chapter to chapter. Often, a minor character in one story will become more prominent in the next. The settings range from New York City to Africa, from childhood homes to safari adventures.
Each chapter is a fresh start, a new story, but the thread that connects them makes them much more than if they were standing alone.
Music and Time
The array of characters are mostly related to the music industry in some way. We connect with musicians and agents; missed talent and forgotten stars. The variety provides different views of the world and each one draws interest in their own way.
Time kills. I think Egan would agree. Every character is defeated, or at least beaten down, by time. We see hopeful talent that falls flat, golden memories tarnished by reunions, and optimism sours into demise.
I read A Visit From the Good Squad by Jennifer Egan several months ago and never posted a full book review until now. As it is an exceptional book that made my list of Favorite Books of 2015, I thought late was better than never.
There are endless ways to structure a novel; the only limit is your imagination! Below I’ve compiled a list of novel structures that I’ve run across recently. Although I tried to keep point of view separate, the two are often very intertwined. Click on the links for more details on the structure from previous book reviews! Please add your favorite/unique structures in the comments below!
Types of Novel Structures
- Linear, following a single character
— Example: Still Alice, Harry Potter, most Stephen King books, and many, many more
- Linear, jumping between multiple characters
— Example: The Story of Forgetting, also, Mary Higgins Clark novels
- Major flashbacks
— Example: The Year of Magical Thinking and In Caddis Woods
— Example: The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Gilead
- Journal entries
— Example: Gone Girl and The Prestige
- Interview characters
— Example: World War Z
- Organize by chunks of time
— Example: Rainy Lake, every chapter covers one summer
- Write individual stories that connect under one theme/character/story
— Example: Elegies of the Brokenhearted or A Big Little Life
- Major backstory leading up to current time
— Example: The Kite Runner
- Include footnotes, poetry, or other unique sections
— Example: Sleight and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (book review coming soon!)
Comment below with more structure types you enjoy!
Kirsten Kaschock is known for her poetry, but she created a world that was simply too large to cram into a poem. Hence, her first novel was born, Sleight.
One of the most creative books I’ve ever read, Sleight captures a vivid, imaginative world surrounding an artistic sport that blends dance, architecture, acrobatics, and spoken word. Yeah, think about that for a while.
The complexities of the sleight performance developed throughout the novel match the depth of the characters that are venturing into uncharted territory in the sport. Kaschock spins a character web of past lovers and strained siblings. Every character has a full, complicated past, but the real questions is what their future holds. They have all come together to create a sleight performance that could be revolutionary or catastrophic.
Kaschock is a poet and it shows in the writing of her debut novel. Her writing is sharp, creative, and mysterious. She has beautiful metaphors including this ‘People are Mirrors’ metaphor I posted earlier.
The novel has footnotes, yes, footnotes that inform the reader of the history and details this world without interrupting the scene with heavy details. Kaschock uses them to great effective but I found myself skipping them completely after the first 80 pages or so, mainly because the pacing of the story was too slow for my taste.
Some chapters were written in theater-style dialogue, as seen in the photo below. I love dialogue, and therefore loved this structure. This allowed Kaschock to skip heavy description and setting details during dialogue but also forced her to implement hints at such descriptions in the dialogue itself.
Although the story begins a bit disorienting, it is in a I-need-to-know-more sort way. The strange terminology and structure made me very eager to read on in the beginning. As the story went on, however, the slow pace really pushed me away. I felt the story really began halfway through the novel and by then, I felt indifferent.
The uniqueness of this novel could populate a blog twice this long, but I’m surprised if you even read this far. 😛 If you enjoy creative novels that break the rules, keeping you more interested in the writing than the story itself, this is the book for you. I enjoyed the book, but didn’t love it, and honestly had trouble charging through to the end. 2.5 stars.
“Elegies is the literary equivalent of a hand grenade: brisk and unsparing, fueled by anger, laced with caustic wit and composed in long, cartwheeling sentences that expose the bleakest of truths.” –New York Times Book Review
Elegies of the Brokenhearted is broken into five sections, each one centering around an individual that influenced the main character, Mary Murphy, in a significant way. These characters include Mary’s favorite uncle who was the drunken failure of the family, a high school outcast, her overly-eccentric college roommate who tells fortunes, an aging musician composing a life-long composition, and her mother who is no less interesting than all the previous combined. Through these detailed looks at others, we get a gradual picture of Mary’s life.
Elegies takes a close look at how even the smallest characters in our lives can have a huge effect on us. Although that theme has certainly been beat into the ground, Christie Hodgen spins it into a unique and entertaining tale you will not quickly forget.
Point of View and Structure
Mary Murphy makes herself a side character in her own story. She narrates each elegy in the second person, focusing the bulk of the narrative on side characters and away from herself. We learn about Mary–her tendencies, her desires, her fears–as she focuses on the traits of others. Each elegy (section) is a very distinct story from the next, each section could be considered a short story in itself, but the thing that ties them all together is Mary’s narrative and the stretched timeline of her life.
The story reads like a memoir. The timeline is structured by the individual stories, freeing it from a linear structure and often revealing plot points early on that will be discussed in depth late in the novel. It might sound confusing, but its written seamlessly. Because the novel covers 20+ years of Mary’s life, there are obvious time markers (like Mary attending college) that make the timeline very easy to follow.
Mary is as passive a main character as you will find. Not only does she focus the narration away from herself and onto others but seems to live through these people. She admires their quirks, their adventures, their bravery, their confidence, but has none of these things herself. She is very content (to the point that she’s okay washing dishes at a restaurant after earning a college degree) and accepts whatever happens to her. She allows the people around her to direct her life (she chooses French as a college major simply because an adviser suggests it and she doesn’t know what else to do).
Hodgen balances her main character’s passivity and uneventful nature by surrounding her with characters that are the exact opposite, characters that have aspirations and take risks, characters that do not settle. Its a beautiful balance.
Writing Prompt: Brainstorm other ideas/plots/settings that would make a passive main character interesting.
5 stars! I loved Elegies of the Brokenhearted. It touched me emotional and intellectually and I will look forward to rereading it a few years from now when I’m sure to find even more magic within the pages.
Gone Girl will have you debating one question to the last page, and maybe even longer… who’s the hero and who’s the victim?
Amy Elliot Dunne disappears on the morning of her 5th wedding anniversary to Nick Dunne. The combination of strange circumstances surrounding her disappearance as well as his odd–almost casual–attitude, Nick becomes the main suspect of the investigation. Learning about Nick and Amy’s history through Amy’s journal entries and never-ending plot twists in the present time.
**There are slight SPOILERS throughout this review, but I will never give away the ending!***
The novel alternates perspective every chapter between Nick’s and Amy’s first-person point of view. Amy’s entries begin as journal entries, which provide the reader with backstory on the couple as well as a direct connection with Amy, who is missing during the present time of the novel. These journal entries have a lot of personality, flair, and intimate details. As the reader is falling in love with the precious, carefree Amy, more and more nasty secrets are surfacing about Nick in the present time.
First-person narratives typically have a reveal-all standard where the reader knows and sees everything the main character sees. That’s not the case with Gone Girl, where both characters keep secrets hidden even from the reader. Flynn cleverly informs readers that secrets are being kept without revealing what the secrets are, increasing suspense and curiosity to an extreme. One of my favorite lines in the novel is the perfect example of this, occurring about 15 minutes into Nick’s initial conversation with the detectives investigating his wife’s disappearance. He admits to the reader that he is lying but we have no idea what he has lied about. It made me want to immediately reread the section!
“It was my fifth lie to the police. I was just starting.” -Nick Dunne
Another single line in this novel inspired my to write an entire blog post around it! Check it out here: Side Characters are People Too
My favorite part about Gone Girl was that there were not one but two main characters yet neither of them were likable.
Because the novel alternates between Nick’s and Amy’s perspectives, we find ourselves with two main characters competing against one another for our trust. Although Nick’s situation initially makes the reader sympathize with him, we become suspicious as the cops continue to unravel his story. **SPOILER AHEAD** Trying not to give too much away, I will say that the huge plot twist halfway through the novel is perfectly timed and executed. As soon as Flynn has every reader ready to put Nick in handcuffs, a shocking twist reveals he may not be as guilty as the cops believe.
Be sure to read the novel before watching the movie (even more so than normal). Both are excellent, but watching the movie first will ruin the suspicion and suspense Flynn has so beautifully written. I wonder if I would have awarded this book 5 stars had I read it before watching the movie, but because I cannot reverse time and I knew what was coming the entire read, I will give it 4 stars.
Overall, its an excellent read that even the most casual readers will enjoy!
The Prestige by Christopher Priest will have you clueless and confident, astonished and suspicious, charmed and furious, all at the same time.
The Prestige is a two-sided story of a pair of feuding magicians in the late 1800’s. The story is told two generations later as their grandchildren read the magicians’ journals. The feud begins when Alfred Borden interrupts a fake séance of Rupert Angier’s, revealing him as a fraud. The event enflames a life-long feud as both magicians rise to popularity. Continuously trying to disrupt one another’s performances, the feud pushes the magicians to the very boundaries of magic, deception, and life itself. As the story encounters many twists and turns, so do the lives of Borden and Angier.
The unique structure was my favorite part of the novel. The magicians’ story is told through their journals and interweaved with the present story of the grandchildren who are now in their 30s. Borden’s journal comes first, covering many years of the feud in a linear fashion. The journal reveals some of Borden’s secrets and provides our first impression of his rival, Angier. After we are told the entire story from Borden’s point of view, the story jumps back to the very beginning and is retold from Angier’s point of view.
Even though the reader is already aware of what is going to happen, Priest does an extraordinary job at exposing new secrets and Angier’s insights to keep the story fresh and exciting.
Old Story, Fresh Point of View
As the reader is introduced to Borden first, and is told the story from his POV, one is driven to take his side and believe his view that Angier is a petty, sometimes cruel man who will not let go of a silly, old grudge. But once the narrative changes to Angier’s POV, that belief muddies. The reader becomes aware that every story has two sides, and depending on who tells the story, the “facts” and the attitude behind them changes drastically. There are multiple points in the second retelling of the story that things that initially seemed unreasonably dramatic make sense once both sides of the story is told. Once the story flips to Angier’s point of view, we realize he had strong reasons for acting the cruel way he did. Slowly but surely, Angier becomes the character I wanted to trust and wanted to come out on top of this feud.
How Priest Keeps an Old Story New
By switching narrators halfway through the novel, Priest pulls out a lot of tricks that need delicate balance. The contrasting personalities of the two men adds interest to the retelling of the story. During each magician’s telling, we must not only learn new, interesting things about the same story but also connect with each narrator at the time of their telling. The deception that magicians live with in order to become successful on the stage is a perfect cover for this structure because in order for a retelling of the same story to be successful, certain secrets must be unknown by each narrator.
Angier’s story, the second journal, extends past the point where Borden’s journal left off. This is another necessary choice by the author to keep the reader interested and the story moving forward. The novel ends where it began, in present time with the grandchildren of the magicians. Although the grandchildren’s story starts off as a slow way to give context to the journals, it ends with a flash of action that ties the entire novel together in an unexpected twist.
5 stars! The plot, the characters, the structure, the mystery, the suspense, they all deserve 5 stars. I specifically recommend the book to all writers because unique, creative structures are something every writer should keep in their “tool box.”
The Prestige was adapted into a major motion picture in 2006 staring Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman. Although the movie does vary slightly from the book’s plot, it stays true to the major themes of the story. The acting is excellent. The movie and the book are both worth one’s time. If you are a fan of the movie, read the book! It varies enough to keep you interested but you will still enjoy the same main premise.
Book Review on William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow. Published by Vintage.
This 135-page novel is unique in many ways. The structure, the voice, and the POV all have very distinctive qualities. John Updike’s quote on the back cover reads, “What a lovely book, utterly unlike any other in shape I have ever read.” And he is not stretching the truth.
This first-person-POV novel is told from the eyes of an old man looking back on an event from his childhood that left a lasting impression. The narrator, who was not a very popular boy, found comfort in his quiet, neighborhood friend until the day he wasn’t there anymore. The boy’s father was suspected of killing his friend who was having an affair with his wife, but before anything could be proven, he took his own life. After this dramatic small-town event, the boy’s mother moved their family to an unknown city.
A year goes by and the boys have no contact. Until, the narrator moves to Chicago and happens to see the boy in the hallway of his new school. This moment, more than any other, is the moment that haunts our narrator and pushes him to write down the story.
It’s not so unusual to read a story narrated by an adult looking back on their childhood. It’s so common in fact that I recently posted a book review on such a novel titled Rainy Lake by Mary Rockcastle. Check it out! The unusual part about this character’s voice is his doubtful and anxious tone. His descriptions are straight forward and emotionally flat, as if he is simply trying to tell us the facts of the story.
A good example of that emotionless writing is the opening chapter, which tells the reader about the murder from a physically distant place. The first characters we meet—who never show up again—appear nameless in the second paragraph and “heard what sounded like a pistol shot. Or, they agreed, it could have been a car backfiring.” After a few casual sentences of description, Maxwell writes, “The sound was not a car backfiring; a tenant farmer named Lloyd Wilson had just been shot and killed, and what they heard was the gun that killed him.”
The doubtful narrator lets us know that his memory of the time is vague and sometimes missing important pieces of information. He collects all the information he can on the event through old newspapers but they provide only a generic picture.
Later on in the book, he narrates entire chapters from a third person point of view that he admits has little to no factual claim behind it. These chapters delve deep into the friendship of the murderer and his victim leading up to the event, as well as the affair. I cannot recall ever having read a first person narrative that jumps into a section where the narrator is neither present nor has any solid basis of what happened at the time. It was a very interesting choice.
Besides this part, the novel read very much like a non-fiction book. The fictional character even says at one point, “This memoir—if that’s the right name for it—is a roundabout, futile way of making amends.” And that sentence describes the book more than any I could possible compose.
Point of View
The most memorable part of the POV came late in the story where the POV would slip into a dog’s perspective. After the murder, the victim’s fatherless family leaves the farm but leaves their dog behind. Again, this plays into the narrator’s emotionless, distant voice. Because we are in the dog’s POV, we don’t get a clear view of the family’s sure-to-be-emotional move. We get the facts. They pack up the car, throw a lot of possessions away, lock the dog in the barn and drive away. The dog waits for them to come back and howls and howls when they don’t. The change we see in the once obedient dog when the new owners arrive was the most emotional part of the book for me. It’s worth noting that I felt more emotionally connected to that dog that we only saw for a couple chapters than to the narrator of the story (an effect of the tone used).
Also important to note, is how Maxwell transitioned into this switch from the narrator’s perspective to the dog’s perspective. When he jumps into the fictionalized story of the murder and his victim, he simply tells us what he is going to do and informs us that he has no knowledge to back it up, breaks for a new chapter, and off he goes. Before we jump into the dog’s head full time, Maxwell casually slips in single sentences in the dog’s POV amongst the normal story. These slips in perspective take the jolt out of the complete switch.
Because I feel like I’m always talking about structure in my book reviews lately, I’ll keep this brief. So Long, See You Tomorrow’s structure takes a page from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet by giving away the dramatic event of the story at the very beginning. We are told about the murder of Lloyd Wilson on the first page and know that he was discovered with a bullet in his head by his youngest son who went to fetch him after he was late for breakfast.
Chapter two throws the reader way back in time to the very beginning of the string of events that led to that moment. Like Romeo and Juliet, it is not about the deaths themselves but about the events leading up to it and the emotional impact it has on the survivors.
I recommend this novel to anyone who wants to read a novel unlike any you’ve read before. The uniqueness certainly has its devoted fans (this book has received high praise by many) but the style didn’t strike a chord with me. The writing itself would earn 5 stars, but overall, I have to award it 3 stars.
How I found this book: One of my college professors recommended it.
Book Review: Mary Francois Rockcastle’s Rainy Lake. Published by Graywolf Press.
Rainy Lake is more than a coming-of-age story of a young girl. There are all the traditional aspects of such a story including friendship, family issues, young love and experiencing new things, but that is not the depth of the story. Set in the late 60’s and early 70’s, Rainy Lake is flooded with issues of the Vietnam War and racism. Growing up in a family that encourages liberal ideas such as equality, anti-war and education for women, the pressure of mass thought throughout their community challenges the family on their beliefs.
Danny (Danielle) Fillian guides the reader through this first person narrative as an older woman looking back on her family’s summers at their lake cabin. The story begins with the family purchasing the lake cabin and progresses through an array of family, community and social political issues. The novel is rich of details that linger on your mind like the smell of lake water lingers on Danny’s first love, a black boy named Billy.
Rainy Lake is a story of opposing forces that bring light on the complications of life. The characters show us that taking actions to back up our beliefs will always meet resistance. The following are the forces I picked out throughout the book that work against each other to twist this young girl’s life into a story worth reading.
White vs. Black.
War vs. Anti-war
Belonging to a community vs. Holding true to individual beliefs
Financial security vs. Happiness/Freedom
Risk vs. the Comfort of Safety
Life vs. Death
Love vs. Lust
The present vs. The future
All of these forces are constantly working against each other. Many events occur that cause the family to put their beliefs into action but they often fall short, giving in to the peer pressure of their community. The only character who truly takes action in align with their beliefs is Danny’s brother, Brain. His actions always align with his beliefs in equality but eventually all of the opposing forces become too strong.
Walls crumble at the end of the novel. More issues arise within the family that builds tension and forces secrets. The relationship between Danny and Billy, the black neighborhood boy, becomes more complicated as he volunteers to go to war. A dramatic event at the end of the novel causes the family to reconsider everything they hold dear in their lives, including each other.
The structure of Rainy Lake smoothly narrates the reader through a seven year time span while skiping large sections of time. Each chapter (some more than 30 pages) covers the span of an entire summer and centers around a single event. (Example: The first chapter covers the summer of 1963 when the family finds and decides to buy the run-down house on Rainy Lake.) Covering 1963 to 1970, Mary Rockcastle exemplifies beautiful transitions in this novel where every chapter break skips seven to eight months. The centering of each chapter around a single event helps ground the reader in the present. It avoids overwhelming feelings from the long timeline or feelings of missing information from the winter months that Rockcastle skips. The fact that the summer cabin is a reasonable distance away from the family’s hometown also helps the flow of the story because we are aware that the summer months are the only time all the characters are all together in this setting. Rockcastle mentions Danny’s “school friends” just enough to let us know that they are not the same as her “Rainy friends.”
Point of View
Like any first person narrative, one must always consider the reliability of the narrator. Danny is a teenage girl, still being highly influenced by her peers and family. She sees the world through a veil, one that simplifies the world. More than once, Danny’s older brother vocalizes her ignorance. This is Rockcastle’s way of telling the reader there are problems that Danny is ignorant off and therefore, so is the reader.
Rockcastle also slips in brief snippets letting the reader know that Danny is narrating this novel many years after the events, as an adult. This could also cause a veil of time to distort the true events as the occurred. Even though I believe every first person narrative
should be taken into consideration, I frown upon spending too much time discussing the reliability. Reliable or not, we can only interpret and enjoy the story in the voice it was written and spending too much time on that takes away from the true essence of the story and the writing.
Because we see the story through Danny’s eyes, we don’t always notice how strange the young girl is. The details Rockcastle shares are well chosen and unique. Danny tends to categorize people by their smells, often mentioning how she smells lake water on the Billy’s skin. Danny also keeps a box of memories. One detail I think I’ll never forget is Danny keeping the condom from her first sexual experience, saying she is going to “press it first, like a corsage.” When Billy mentions how strange it is, she shrugs it off saying “I save all my important things. I have a box full of stuff: ticket stubs, invitations, dried flowers…Now I have this, too.”
“I think you’re a little cracked, Danny,” Billy said.
Any detail that sticks in a reader’s mind as this one has stuck in mine is a true writing success, no matter how far out of the box (no pun intended) one must go to get it.
The most impactful moment of the book comes near the end, in a meaningful exchange between Danny and her brother, Brian. The dialogue feels very real with sincere concern and quick bickering remarks like all siblings display. It is balanced with hopes for a bright future and secrets that could hold them back. When I finished the book, I immediately went back and reread this conversation between Danny and Brian. On the first read, it was powerful and demanded the readers’ attention. On the second, it slowed down the entire novel. It discusses the past, the present and the future. When reading it for the second time, I got the feeling that Danny’s brother knew something was going to happen and before it did, he wanted to tell his sister that she can be and do anything she wants in this life as long as she doesn’t let herself get in her way. This passage alone would make the entire book worth reading; it is that powerful.
Although I would not call Rainy Lake a “page-turner,” it is indeed a compelling story. The depth and width of topics covered is empowering and the feeling of the Vietnam War era is captured well, hovering over Danny as she grows into a woman. I recommend this book to all who love a complex tale of family and young love as well as those who love a book full of rich detail. As one of the cover quotes states, this novel will leave you with “the lingering smell of lake water.”
How I found this book: I was honored to have Mary Rockcastle, Director of the Hamline University Creative Writing Program, teach my Senior Seminar at Hamline. After gaining respect for her as a teacher and brilliant mind on the craft of writing, I couldn’t stop myself from picking up her book. Now, I have gained respect for her as a writer as well as a person. Thank you for sharing your knowledge—and your novel—with us, Mary.