Character description in A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

I began reading A Visit From the Goon Squad about a week ago, and I was hooked by the writing.  I was a bit confused by the use of a different point of view for each chapter, but, now that I’m halfway through the book, I find myself interested in who will carry the next chapter.

I’ll discuss that tactic later in my reading.

I want to start with the fantastic character description in this book, both to show physical attributes and the relationships between characters, and what’s a better way to show this than through an example?

“Within a few months, anyone would have said that Stephanie and Kathy were friends.  They had a standing tennis date two mornings a week, and they’d become successful doubles partners in an interclub league, playing other blond women in small tennis dresses from nearby towns.  There was an easy symmetry to their lives right down to their names–Kath and Steph, Steph and Kath–and their sons, who were in the same first-grade class.  Chris and Colin, Colin and Chris; how was it that all the names Stephanie and Bennie had considered when she was pregnant–Xanadou, Peek-a-boo, Renaldo, Cricket–they’d ended up choosing the single one that melded flawlessly with the innocuous Crandale namescape?” (Egan, 2011)

There’s no page number for this in my Kindle edition, but it falls at the end of Chapter 7: A to B, Part I.  

Here, we’ve got description of two characters in one paragraph.  There’s little physical description here, except for “playing other blond women in small tennis dresses.”  This suggests that Kathy and Stephanie are blond and wear white tennis dresses as well, though I know from another description that Stephanie actually has dark, short hair.

The first sentence of the paragraph is especially informative: “Within a few months, anyone would have said that Stephanie and Kathy were friends.”  “Anyone would have said.”  This suggests that they were not actually friends but appeared to be so.  The last sentence in the paragraph rounds this out perfectly with the phrase “melded flawlessly with the innocuous Crandale namescape.”  This suggests that Stephanie does not feel she fits into this community but, again, they seem to because of the unexpectedly common name they chose for their son (compared to the other options listed).  These other names also show Stephanie and her husband Bennie’s personalities–free-wheeling, or at least wanting to be so.

Last, I want to highlight a piece of awesome punctuation–the em-dash.  I just used one.  It’s formed by using two hyphens together between two words, without any spaces.  In Word, this will form into a solid line.  An em-dash gets its name because it used to be the length of a lowercase M.  

It’s used to show interruption, kind of like appositive commas or parentheses, except that the break in the sentence feels more immediate.  You can use just one, but a pair is more common, with the part after the second em-dash returning to the rhythm of the sentence.  You should be able to cut the em-dashed section out with the sentence sounding complete.  Try it with the sentences above: “…right down to their names and their sons, who were in the same first grade class.”  Sure, “names” and “sons” make something of an awkward parallel, but the sentence works.

So there you have it!  What would you like next time–physical description or organization?  It’ll take until I finish the book to get to the uses of different characters for each chapter, so please stay tuned!


About Em-dash Lady

Em-dash Lady enjoys creative writing most of all, but her interests include art forms from music to writing to visual art to indie films and so forth. She's especially interested in how the art forms influence each other and blend together. She's a creative writing teacher and writer who mostly writes memoir and poetry about her favorite activity, watching TV. I would say I'm kidding, but I'm not. Naps are also her favorite. Too many favorites to count! Enjoy following Em-dash Lady as she figures out how she fits in the ever-evolving world of art.
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