4.4.11

App-ing Around with Egan and the Goon Squad

     The movement of fiction from paper into pixel is the (on-going) publishing change of our time. First real books, then e-books, now apps designed for use on our favourite fruity tech platforms. The mind boggles.

     So, I was sent the app for 'A Visit from the Goon Squad' by the lovely people at Constable & Robinson and was unsure what to expect. What does one normally expect from a book app? A few chapters and a bio? A related game and some snippets of the author's other work? Suffice to say, I was cynical yet curious (ex more, of course). But, to my pleasure, I found the entire book. And I liked it as an app. Here's why:


     I've not read Egan before but quickly realised that she is of the analytical, overly self-aware 90s set, a la Audrey Niffenegger or any writer based in an East Coast US college, or, say, Massachusetts. This is not to say I'm not a fan of this type of writing (I can be), but it can at times be a bit hard going and sad (could someone crack a smile, like, once? Please?). Also, this is clearly intended as a 'clever' book, which might be enough to alienate some. 

A Visit from the Goon Squad     However, this clever use of app-age (is this a word?) helps resolve both of these potential issues, I think: the deconstructed, touch screen format prevents it from feeling too self-important or staid, making it a little looser, like you've unclipped its hair and given it a glass of wine, and the fact that it's there on your phone/iPad/iPod egalitarianises it, if you will, and stops it from being too intimidating or remote. In short, I felt that lack of lightness less and the 'coolness' comes through as intended. It is a 'cool' book after all, and for me this is emphasised by its presentation in a contemporary, post-modern form. Also, no self-conscious poseuring is required with a download in the same way that it might be if you were to purchase it in hard-back from a shop, which might be a negative for some (yes, you, in the dark beret and glasses), but counters that risk of alienation by marketing-led canonisation in store. It's just there in your phone, after all. Anyway, I think app-tising it (sorry) is in concept a great idea, making it easier to cope with and easier to obtain.

     So, to the app. To be honest, I really enjoyed it. I felt that in this format 'A Visit from the Goon Squad' is bite-sized. Cute. Innovative. Fun. Each chapter has its own cover and icon and can be simultaneously read on screen and listened to through headphones (a great feature - on first opening it I didn't move for two hours).  A book of this magnitude suddenly feels manageable. A format like this might be the perfect thing to get you to the end of Jonathan Franzen's 'Freedom', for example, or my oft-mentioned 'difficult' book of choice, 'War and Peace'. 

It's particularly perfect for this book though, as it enhances Egan's short-story-esque chapter linkage and counter-intuitive chronological structure; it's all been chopped up and coloured in and constructed into a multi-media maze with clearly marked exits that do much to relieve any post-modern metafictional anxiety ('what's going on?' 'when?' 'to who, again?'). It feels hip, loose and fun, like some kind of niche literary platform game or a narrative-led treasure hunt. I'm keen to finish it in the order intended and then to read it out of sequence to see how it changes. I also love the addition of the chapter-related playlists (complete with iTunes linkage) and Egan's own notes on how each chapter began and grew to fruition (on Apple. How lovely). Anyone who reads this blog regularly will know I love that background stuff. Anyway, the overall combination of shifting and peripheral character focus, rampant drug use and sexy formatting made it feel weirdly akin to mainlining an entire early series of 'Skins'; Egan herself has registered 'The Sopranos' as an influence.

     My only reservation with the app platform presentation of this book is that it perhaps lacks some of the intimacy of the usual reading experience (after all, the words are set behind glass), but in my case this could be because I couldn't take it to bed with me. Publishers take note: I read almost entirely in bed and staring at pixels prevents me from settling, so I will ALWAYS want books in their traditional format, but an e-book fan might of course say the opposite. For me, it was novel and legitimised some mid-afternoon sofa time. The other slight issue is that occasionally the audiobook recording and the words on screen didn't match, but I suppose this might be another metafictional device to make me aware of my own processing (but then again, maybe not).

     Overall, I really enjoyed ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’, both as novel and as an app: an interesting presentation of an interesting book. Egan will profit from my exposure to excerpts of her other work, I'm sure (and buying it like this would reduce my ever-present need for more bookcases). I'd be keen to read more books like this. 

      For me, this app-as-book/book-as-app formula is a success, and it will keep this book in my mind, I think, for some time to come. No-one forgets their first, after all, book apps included :)

     'A Visit from the Goon Squad' app is available here.

 

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