Tuesday, July 9, 2013

A Visit from the Goon Squad ~ Jennifer Egan

I'm going to preface this review by saying that I never had much interest in this book.  The summary on the back of the book, with claims of "music pulsing on every page," just had me kind of meh about it.  That might have been cool when I was in high school, but it's no longer a draw for me.  However, SO MANY people recommended this book, from fellow bloggers to my friend's dad to the Pulitzer Prize committee that it was definitely on my radar.  I found a copy super-cheap at a library book sale, so I gave it a shot.  And after all that ruckus I have to say, I am still very meh about this book.  At least I'm true to myself?

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.


  1. I don't really think you're wrong about this book. Your review is a bit more harsh than mine was, but mostly I'm right there with you. This book is anything but a novel. It's not even really a novel in stories. It's just stories, and that's clearly fine, but it means that readerly expectations are stood on their head.

    I really liked the writing, but most of the things that others have raved about (that damn Power POint chapter, for one thing) mostly just irritated me. GImmicky, gimmicky, gimmicky.

    1. I probably wouldn't have been SO mean if it wasn't for the rave reviews (and Pulitzer Prize! What?!) that this book got. Glad to know I'm not the only one because I was wondering what I was missing! I'm going to find your review now!

  2. I haven't read it yet (it's actually directly above my head right now, pressed between the [REDACTED] number of other books I have to read), but your review seems very much in-line with a lot of other opinions I've read about the book. I've also been curious about the definition of this one as a "novel", but these days it seems more like a label you slap on anything that needs to look "serious" and "literary".

    And oh, I'd never heard that critique about the kid characters in the book before. In fact I hadn't realized there were any. Have to say, that's a major strike for me - I can't stand badly written child characters... alas.

    1. I think the whole "novel" thing is more about the average consumer generally preferring novels to short stories - market it as a novel and they'll buy it. Makes sense, but it's annoying and misleading.

      There aren't that many children in the book and they don't show up that often, but there's enough of a variety for them to come across as unbelievable. I personally like precocious child characters, but if every kid is like that then it just becomes silly.

  3. I all sorts of loved this book, but I can't really disagree with anything you said. Of course I liked the fact that we don't actually see the characters in the act of growing and evolving. I like those pauses. And the PPT chapter I did think was gimmicky but I neither liked nor disliked the format. I liked the discussion of pauses but didn't really care about the PPT stuff.

    Also, separate note, I HATE when novels say "A Novel" on the cover. But that's in general with any book. I agree that this is less novel and more interconnected short stories. Which I liked.

    Another side note, but I'm watching Wilfred while reading your review and Elijah Wood's character was reading this book.

  4. I haven't actually read The Goon Squad yet, but everything you've said rings true with everything I've heard about it. I still don't know if I will read it or not.