Tuesday, July 9, 2013
A Visit from the Goon Squad ~ Jennifer Egan
So, this book follows an ever-expanding cast of characters, must of whom can be tied back to Sasha, a kleptomaniac/record label assistant, and/or, Bennie a record executive/unfaithful husband. Each chapter is told from a different perspective, with a few repeats, and at a different period in time, stretching back to the 60's or 70's, and forward to so strange future that includes a giant wall around New York and people being obsessed with technology (so not that far in the future). The chapters take a variety of forms, from your standard narrative, to mockingly journalistic, to a powerpoint presentation, which is what everybody talks about when they talk about this book.
First off, the cover announces loud and proud that this is a novel. I beg to disagree. It seems much more apt to call this a collection of linked short stories partially because of the number of story lines, partially because of the lack of continuity, and partially because of the lack of (and we're coming to my major issue) satisfying character development.
Note that I said satisfying character development. The characters definitely grow and evolve but we never see them growing and evolving. Take Sasha for example: from various perspectives, we see her thieving in Rome, going to college, working as an assistant, going on a date after being fired from said job, and being a married woman. Her characterization is very distinct in each of these situations but there's a lack of continuity from one to the next. Why does she decide to leave Rome and go to college? When does she stop stealing and for what reason? What made her grow? A panoramic novel, which this tries to be, would answer those questions. Instead, we get isolated moments but nothing to connect them. Even if this book had claimed to be a collection of short stories (which it probably didn't for marketing reasons), this would have been annoying, but at least more understandable.
I also found the novel too gimmicky, particularly the last two chapters (don't worry, I don't really spoil anything). I liked the powerpoint chapter, but only because it allowed me to zip through 75 pages. The slides were hard to read and the format didn't add to the experience in any way. The futuristic New York was just uninspired - touch screens and Facebook have taken over modern life, what a shock!
But rock and roll lives forever!!! Yes, I like rock too, but really? Could this be cheesier? In the end, this seems to be the "point" of the novel and it's hardly original and not at all inspiring. The best bit related to music (to me) was the kid who likes the pauses - the silence - in rock songs and that got buried in a powerpoint developed by his sister. His observations and obsessions were fascinating, but unfortunately weren't allowed to shine. Speaking of kids, I'm pretty sure that Jennifer Egan has never met one. Most kids are not that precocious, so to write every single one that way is just inaccurate.
Okay, this has been a VERY negative review (though honestly, it might have been less so if the last two chapters had been cut, because they really just ruined it for me) so I'm going to end this on a good note. I really love what is apparently known as the David Foster Wallace chapter: "Forty-Minute Lunch: Kitty Jackson Opens Up About Love, Fame, and Nixon!" This confessional and self-exploration cum celebrity interview was great. I love when authors can make me feel for an ostensible "bad guy" and shed light on truth. Not only was I amused by Jules' observation, I completely empathized with him and loved his choice to write his story in the form of the article he was originally supposed to write. This chapter also did a great job of pulling together a couple of plot points that were kind of hanging loose and used footnotes to great effect. If only more of the book could have been like this.
Okay, I'm ready for the backlash. Tell me why I'm wrong about this book. I know you want to.