A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I was hesitant to write a review of the novel that won the Pulitzer prize for fiction this year, partly because I don’t have the space for the analysis that I’d love to see this book receive here (not that I would be capable of that even if I did), but mostly because I’m just not sure I have the chops for it. My interest in A Visit from the Goon Squad was piqued by the title, and solidified by its winning the Pulitzer. Now that I’ve finished it, though, there is simply too much to say about this novel, which is nothing short of phenomenal and left me nothing short of breathless with the completely satiated feeling that comes when you recognize that you’ve just read something better than the last two years’ worth of books all put together. So, while others will and have doubtlessly reviewed this better than I will, this one, at the end of the day, is just too good to keep.
“Time’s a goon,” or at least that’s what more than one character says through the course of this book, and this, apparently, is the important thing that Egan is attempting to say in her novel. To narrow this down as the only theme would be a mistake, however, but it appears to at least be the characters’ most obvious and existential struggle. We begin with Sasha, a kleptomaniac who works for a record producer named Bennie in New York City. Sasha remains the closest thing to a single protagonist that we’ll get in the novel, as the novel is actually a collection of short stories through which Egan deftly and creatively switches protagonists as easily as she does time periods. The incidental character in the chapter you’re reading will become the protagonist in the next chapter, and some mental gymnastics are occasionally required to keep up with who has said what to whom and when several chapters previously. The stories jump backward and forward in time, gently revealing how each of the characters impact each other throughout their lives in a manner that calls to mind Salinger’s Nine Stories, and with wildly improbable events occurring (like someone being mauled by a lion during an African safari, or the futuristic addiction to handsets that appears in the end of the novel) that actually don’t feel quite so improbable at the time. What remains constant, though, is that time and age are profoundly impacting the characters’ lives, and they all struggle to survive and thrive in one way or another, some to more success than others. Some even manage to do so redemptively. Sasha and Bennie remain the constants, and, while not appearing in every story, are the obvious connections between the characters. This is especially true of Sasha, who leaves her mark on both the other characters and the reader as a girl you just can’t help but love, despite her shortcomings, as she searches for herself and somehow manages to bring out something good in those around her.
Early in the book, I started to realize that things were beginning to sound familiar, and found myself thinking that I had read this before. I then remembered that I had, as short fiction in The New Yorker a little over a year ago. I remembered the story because, standing alone, it made no sense to me other than being a well-crafted portrait of teenage angst. That, however, is part of the beauty of Egan’s craft. Each chapter can stand alone as a self-contained story. The genius, though, is how each one interweaves with all of the others in ways that you never quite expect but that you can’t help but love. Again, this is what leaves me reminiscent of Salinger, and may be part of why I loved this book so much.
Perhaps a deeper theme that lies not so subtly beneath the surface of Egan’s writing is that of a culture of public relations, which becomes very apparent about halfway through the novel when we are introduced to one of our characters who does public relations for a living. Manufacturing an image is something that all of these characters do to simply survive, growing their personal brands now and struggling to resurrect them when they die, as if doing so is to resurrect themselves. This exploration of image management ends in its logical conclusion in a futuristic New York City as Egan abruptly launches her final chapter into the realm of speculative fiction while losing none of her unique, literary zest.
And did I mention the music? The music that rings through this novel is a self-contained tour of rock history that will just bring smiles to your face as you recall these amazing songs. One reviewer wrote that he regretted that the book didn’t come with a soundtrack. I have to echo that sentiment, but also point out how the rhythms of music, right down to the pauses (which will play a major role as Egan explores the mind of an Autistic child…yes, she does that too) seem to move the plot along with the rise and fall in tempo that’s the mark of any good album. There’s music to Egan’s prose. The plot centers around the music industry and its peripheral components, following characters that become involved with music as children and follow it through their lives as the goon that is time fights them, some to more success than others. One of the most poignant moments for me was the character who, becoming a custodian in his later life but still playing his guitar and writing music, recognizes that there is no difference between the record producer in the shiny office building and the school custodian, that both are people, and both are equal.
There really isn’t much that Egan doesn’t tackle here. To list the themes and ideas with which she experiments would leave the reader shaking her head at first blush, thinking that it is too much, that no author can explore that many things in one novel, at least not well. Never once, though, did I feel that while reading. Somehow, Egan does it all well, in exactly the right amounts, as though mixing just the right sound for her album. And, even though each chapter left me pausing to digest what I had just read, the book also moves easily, because you’ll find that you really can’t put it down once you’ve started until you’ve reached its end, back where it started, glimpsing the characters with whom we started as they are in the future, somehow still managing to survive and re-invent themselves in the face of that goon. In fact, they’ve even managed to make a difference, to change the world around them for the better despite their previous mistakes. That redemption is what left this one in the realm of the amazing for me.
A Visit from the Good Squad is one of those works that dispels the myth that real literature isn’t written any more. No matter your taste, you need to read this book, because you will be better for having done so.
I read this earlier this summer too! I absolutely loved the first scene introducing Sasha ~ I crossed my fingers and hoped the rest of the book would live up to this first piece of the puzzle. Then, as the protagonists and time periods starting switching everything up, I was distracted at first. I have to admit, I couldn’t keep up with linking the characters in my mind very well. I decided to push through that and just enjoy the “short stories” as they went. [Which were overall very enjoyable!]… It was only in retrospect that I was able to look back and ponder how the characters and themes linked together… These tiny moments of realization [Oh wow.. so that’s the married guy who did that when he was younger and now he’s… yeah.] That, for me, was almost the best part of reading it… I love something that moves me enough to make me think about it for weeks afterward — and this did that. Very good read. Just my two cents!
That’s exactly how I felt, too, Jenny. I still find myself referencing and discussing this book weeks after reading it. Thanks for you “two cents.” 🙂
I’m really pleased you enjoyed it Dave, I can’t say I was anything like as blown away as you were. There’s plenty to admire in intention, but I really couldn’t connect with the characters, found the whole thing a bit messy, and most of the themes just a little dull. Maybe I’ve missed something, but I’m glad their are people out there for whom the book is living up to its hype.
My review is here, if interested: A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
B., you’ve written a great review, as well. I agree with you that the book’s overall theme contains nothing new; then again, I’d argue that there’s nothing new thematically anyway, and what counts is how you approach the same themes. Interesting how I found the funky structure to be well composed, while you found it disjointed. Such are individual tastes 🙂
Thanks for contributing your thoughts, and pointing me to your own review!