Review: A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Like music to a readers ear, Jennifer Egan’s novel A Visit from the Goon Squad flows lyrically from page to page. The story, character, words, and tone of the novel come together  in perfect harmony from beginning to end.

I had the pleasure of meeting Jennifer Egan at Portland’s book festival, Wordstock, this past month where I had her sign my copy of Goon Squad. Not only was she charming and polite in person, she was also very ‘real’ and down to earth, smiling and greeting every fan and answering all their questions with genuine interest.

I had heard lots of great things about this novel, not to mention its won numberous awards including the Pulitzer Prize. Needless to say, Egan was the author I was most looking forward to seeing at Wordstock. My husband and I listened to her reading from Goon Squad and it’s hard to NOT like a book that so clearly challenges social acceptance and norms. Listening to hear reading the except from her book, it was even harder for me NOT to be excited about reading the book.

I started reading the book shortly after Wordstock, and it was very clear that I was reading something special and different. The book whole tone of the book is gritty, hard boiled….almost a film noir style book. It is set in punk rock era NYC (as well as a host of other cities and locations)…..where the underground music scene rules this vibrant city.

We follow the lives of a host of characters, but only in small snippets….the book is not necessarily a collection of short stories but because of the little ‘novellas’ for each character it is hard to call it a ‘novel’ either. I think the title captures the theme of the novel. In one of the chapters, Bennie (one of the main characters) has nicknamed time ‘the goon': “Time’s a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?”. In the book everyone is effected by time, life, and circumstance…they are pushed from one period of their lives to another….they are all visited by the goon and this novel is about the echos the goon creates.

First we meet Sasha as a woman of thirty who impulsively steals. We get a short snap shot of her life/story from her own perspective and casually meet another character. When the short story is over, it’s like someone presses the rewind button and suddenly we are seeing Sasha through Bennie’s eyes and hearing another snap shot. Bennie is a middle age record executive who is struggling with what his life has somehow become, he’s divorced, he barely knows his kid, he can’t get aroused anymore, and he loves his assistant (Sasha). One minute he is reminicing about his younger days when all that mattered was his band and his friends.

Again someone hits the rewind button and we meet Rhea (one of Bennie’s friends from the band) and we see Bennie through her eyes. This same theme goes on throughout the book…..a casual meeting of characters and how their lives intertwine with each other. We get to know all the characters in very intimate and unique ways but they are never all together, we are never hearing one single narrative as we do in typical books….we are seeing how the characters view themselves and how other characters view them to gain a full understanding of the character.

I liked that it touched on more ‘taboo’ topics usually absent from mainstream lit such as hard core drug use, offensive language, homosexuality, mental illness, and suicide, this gave the novel a whole new level of perspective. I can wholeheartedly say that this book is 100% worthy of the Pulitzer Prize and I see now why it has won so many awards etc. The rich tone that comes from Egan’s prose is beautiful…she has a true talent for narration….a quote on the back of the book said it best there really is ‘music pulsing on every page’. I was impressed by the complex point of views, character, and mixing of culture and social taboos but I can’t say that I particularly enjoyed the book.

It’s hard for me to really say why I didn’t care for it….I just didn’t. Perhaps you need to be in a particular ‘mood’ to read the book? Sometimes I go through phases like that where I just want to read darker, edgy, controversial books like this and when I read them, I love them so maybe I just wasn’t in the mood for a heavy book like this. I am not sure.

I think I would have appreciated it more if I was a fan of the music. I really wanted to love this book and was very surprised that I didn’t. The stories were extremely compelling and interesting but also….sad and depressing….I know the idea of the book was that the goon (time) eventually comes for everyone which is a disheartening feeling no matter how you look at it.

I was still waiting for the promised ‘redemption’ of the cover summary but I never truly felt like anyone redeemed themselves in the book which was sad….maybe in some small ways but I was expecting a HUGE transformation in some of the characters. It seemed like Egan used time as a brusque way of gaining redemption….it seemed like the passing of time was supposed to somehow make all the bad decisions and ghosts ‘ok’ for the characters, as if they would find peace and happiness through time. That was a hard one to swallow for me….I don’t say that mockingly either. I am getting older, we all are, and every day it gets easier and easier to live with the choices I’ve made and the ghosts of my past but that doesn’t mean I’ve found peace or redemption for my acts.

I also didn’t like the lack of plot….it was hard at times to follow along with the constantly changing narrations and styles. I felt like there were TOO many characters to keep track of, 5-6 would have been plenty but there were so many different short stories going on and all coming together at various times that it was hard to remember who was who.

As with any best selling book….it’s the controversial ones that generate the most buzz and Goon Squad is no exception. All personal feelings aside, this is a great literary work. It is unique and ravishing…it will make you stand up and pay attention and listen to the chorus of timeless rhythm echoing off the pages.

Challenge/Book Summary:

Book:  A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

  • Paperback, 341 pages
  • Published March 22nd 2011 by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (first published 2010)
  • ISBN 0307477479 (ISBN13: 9780307477477)

This book counts toward: NA

  • Hosted by: NA
  • Books for Challenge Completed: NA

Recommendation: 3 out of 5 (Fresh, unique, and controversial…but also heavy).

Genre: Fiction, edgy contemporary fiction, gritty fiction, dark/controversial novel

Memorable lines/quotes:

Structural dissatisfaction: Returning to circumstances that once pleased you, after having experienced a more thrilling or opulent way of life, and finding that you can no longer tolerate them.

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2 Comments

  1. I felt the same way about this book, and I’m so glad that I’m not the only person out there not raving about it from an “entertainment” standpoint. I love that it pushes boundaries, and I didn’t hate reading it, it just didn’t DO it for me. Then again, I’d already read Egan’s THE KEEP and I didn’t love it either, so maybe I just don’t dig her style. Much respect to her though; objectively, I think she’s great.

    Reply
  1. The Lit Bitch’s Year in Literature Wrap Up 2011 « The Lit Bitch

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