Understanding Polyphony in Writing in Visit from the Goon Squad
Here's a paper I wrote on how to use the contrast and concert of the different voices of a novel (character / authorial / etc.) to help express your theme as best as possible.
Here's a simple breakdown of what it's about:
Having different voices, whether it's different characters or even the authorial voice, discuss the same theme allows the reader to see it from different angles
Introducing a new character or chapter with a suggestion of a habit that's just changed helps create a quick sense of depth.
Have the character's voice influence how the scenes are described if we're looking through their POV.
Here's the full essay:
When I think about polyphony and how it relates to writing, it boils down to a new set of tools for handling character and plot. Since voice (whether authorial, character, or otherwise) is such a huge part of how we experience a piece of work, it can go a long way in making the characters come alive and even pulling off non-standard plot structures. The books we read were helpful because they demonstrated both. In Beloved, the range of voices and tones that Morrison created gave a vivid depth to the past that scarred these characters, and in A Visit from the Goon Squad, the range of voices highlighted the connecting tissue of theme between the stories.
To that point, I thought the way that Jennifer Egan handled her plot structure in A Visit from the Goon Squad was a fantastic example of how voice reinforced her use of character and theme to tie together a series of what might have been a series of disjointed stories. Rather than a series of short stories with similar tone and sound, the varied voice of each viewpoint character made the chapters feel so different that when we did see the similarities they were more exaggerated by contrast. Also, having each of these different characters dealing with the same themes in their own voices added a deeper level of resonance. For example, in Lou’s reunion at the pool, Jocelyn is angry about her lost time spent with Lou and wants to “heave [Lou’s hospital bed] into the turquoise pool.” But a moment later we hear Lou’s voice through dialogue showing his same ache to return to the past, “Nice to be. With you girls…Another minute… Thank you girls. One more like this.” (Egan, 91) Both are dealing with time lost, and through the contrast of their voices and the different ways they deal with it—regret versus anger—we can see their characters and the theme in sharper relief than if we were simply looking at one of them. It is this mix of similarity of the problem every character is trying to resolve and difference between the characters (exaggerated by voice) that lends A Visit from the Goon Squad its resonance.
Another technique I found in the same vein was the use of habitual voice at the beginning of the chapter to establish the character’s tone and plot hook. This was noticeable in nearly every chapter. Try this line, “The shame memories began early that day for Bennie.” (Egan 18) Breaking this down, what was so interesting was we have a sense of the character’s past and problem from sentence one. Bennie is a guy who has shame memories, I feel bad for him and wonder what caused it as a reader. Also, it gives us a hint of the plot to come: these issues started early for Bennie this day. What is special about this day? Why is his condition worse today? This also smoothly brings us into Bennie’s voice in the next sentence “Then, Stop/Go seemed like an excellent bet.” (Egan 18) Only Bennie would use the word “bet” to refer to a band, so we immediately are brought into his world. In the next chapter, we get a similar setup, “Late at night, when there’s nowhere left to go, we go to Alice’s house.” (Egan 39) This does that same double duty of establishing a habit for the character—wandering around a night with their crew with no place to go and establishing Rhea’s voice. I think this is a clever tool for introducing a deeper character early on. As I work on my novel, I want to strive to suggest the habitual much earlier in those first character moments to get the same effect.
When thinking about how to change my writing to be more polyphonic one of the biggest tools I want to adopt is bringing a character’s voice out of only the dialogue and into the description and even the universal narrator. Coming from a screenwriting background, this is probably the biggest issue with my prose writing right now. I struggle to get out of the scene dynamics and action description. I need to dive a bit deeper into the character’s thoughts and rationale rather than dwelling on the exterior. The magic of a voice and polyphony is that it can give us insight into the character’s past, relationships, obligations, motivations, and sensibilities without yanking us out of the scene. Using the voice in which a character describes even a glass of water in his words can give us BOTH scene description and character insight. Let’s say the character describes a glass of water through interiority saying, “It was a miracle no one had stolen that shimmering glass of joy.” It’s exaggerated, but it shows something about the character’s background—water is valuable and rare. Compare that to, “Someone left a glass of water on the table without a coaster,” and the distinction is clear. One great example of this was in Beloved when Paul D describes Seethe’s love for Denver as, “Risky, very risky. For a used-to-be slave woman to love anything that much was dangerous.” (Morrison 54). This tells us a lot about the pasts and motivations of these characters: 1.) they have been hurt so much that they fear love because it will only compound future hurt and 2.) they’re motivated by self-preservation to close themselves off to the world. Let’s pretend Paul D instead said something like, “He was in Seethe’s life now, and her love turning to her child like that meant there was less for him.” This would describe the same phenomenon, but give us a whole different set of motivations for Paul D.
On a more tactical level, it was interesting to see how using voice and polyphony well can allow the writer to dig deeper into flashback and other devices if they organically arise from the character’s internal thoughts. For example, in Bennie’s chapter he recalls kissing mother superior in his own words, “Even now, Bennie could hear the unearthly sweetness of those nuns’ voices echoing deep in his ears.” (Egan 20) This starts a flashback, but it is very organic to Bennie’s voice since he recalls things through HEARING. He’s a music guy, so it’s intuitive that a memory of sound would kick off a flashback. This makes it a much smoother transition than it would otherwise have been. In other cases, Egan doesn’t use this technique and uses the universal narrator to jump scene. She’ll flash forward numerous times in the universal voice, but she only uses this technique to add resonance to the current scene. For example, when Charlie dances with Rolph, she describes Charlie remembering his moment “long after Rolph has shot himself in the head in his father’s house” and it shows the reader just how important this dancing moment will be to these characters. (Egan 82) I think for me this underlines the fact that if I’m going to flash back or forward in the universal narrator’s voice, I better have a darn good reason to do it.
Overall, Beloved and A Visit from the Goon Squad were fantastic reads, and both handle polyphony in the prose extremely well and use the contrast of character and narrative voice to make the narrative flow better and pop off the page. Whether it’s to lend resonance to a scene or to setup their entire plot structure, the shifting voices help the reader zoom out and see the contrasts in a character’s past and present. It is this shifting voice that truly helps us understand how the character’s grow through the story, and well, character growth is what we all read for, isn’t it?