Title: A Visit from the Goon Squad
Author: Jennifer Egan
Release date: March 22, 2011
Source: Personal collection
Rating: 5 out of 5
There’s nothing I can say about this book that hasn’t been said before. It’s gotten a ton of awards and appeared on dozens of “Best Books” lists. Everyone and their mother has reviewed and recommended it. So, here are my thoughts, as scattered and loosely linked as the narratives in the book, but of course nowhere near as smart.
Much is said about plot in writing. Without plot, you don’t have a book… right?
That’s why, at first glance, A Visit from the Goon Squad appears to be a series of interconnected short stories. There is no overarching plot, no event or circumstances that drive the characters through the narrative, which switches back on itself, going into the past and then the future over the course of four decades. In books like The Train of Small Mercies, the characters never meet. But the same event—the death of RFK—draws them together in theme and event if not in circumstance, and so their arcs mirror each other.
And that’s where the meta-ness of Goon Squad becomes clear. There are 13 different characters,* 13 wildly different stories, some more memorable and striking than others. But the true main character of this book is music.** There is a cacophony of voices—in first, second and third person—creating a clamor of notes and memories and emotions. Like a musician, this book writhes and yells, often making no sense until you’re deep into a verse. Time shifts, elides, blurs. There are a dozen characters on stage, relations sometimes unknown, and all produce the noise and art that is music. And music-the-character evolves throughout the story, interacting with commercialization and fame and obscurity and publicity and technology.
It’s that kind of book.
It’s a critical darling, the kind of book that gets basically no negative reviews because the people who don’t like it are pretty sure they just don’t understand it. It’s a very confusing, layered, sometimes purposefully obscure book. I was all geared up to hate it. But, begrudgingly, I loved it.
Egan uses every tool in the shed. Every description I’ve read, including my own, makes it sound really gimmicky. It is. But (save for the last chapter), it’s really beautiful and moving. Goon Squad isn’t the first to employ modular structure, but it does so in very provocative ways. (As a reviewer, I am contractually obligated to mention the Powerpoint chapter. Which didn’t blow me away—who would actually do that?—but I thought it worked well in this crazy-mixed-up book.) The modular structure allows writers to tell stories in unexpected, unconventional ways—and this is a very unexpected, unconventional story.
Because music is the main character, the supporting cast of characters (as in, those who are actually narrating the story) are sometimes at risk of being flat and cliché. But each character has a strong voice and a unique POV. Certain narrators stand out in my memory more than others: Sasha, Rhea, Drew, Lou. But all of the characters have one thing in common: they all deeply flawed. All wish to belong; all wonder why they can’t.
My only complaint is the last chapter. It’s awful: weird technofuturism that balks at the prevalence of texting and technologically savvy toddlers. The last chapter is the only off note in this book, which is a real shame—it kept the book from being Amazing for me. I think the book would have been complete if Egan had ended at the penultimate chapter—where it says, conveniently, “The End.” By moving to the near future, Egan belabors her point: “time is a goon” that makes fools of all of us.
Love it or hate it, you won’t forget this book!
*But you want to hear more about the characters, you say? All right. But you asked for it. Here’s a brief synopsis by Will Blythe for The New York Times:
The book starts with Sasha, a kleptomaniac, who works for Bennie, a record executive, who is a protégé of Lou who seduced Jocelyn who was loved by Scotty who played guitar for the Flaming Dildos, a San Francisco punk band for which Bennie once played bass guitar (none too well), before marrying Stephanie who is charged with trying to resurrect the career of the bloated rock legend Bosco who grants the sole rights for covering his farewell “suicide tour” to Stephanie’s brother, Jules Jones, a celebrity journalist who attempted to rape the starlet Kitty Jackson, who one day will be forced to take a job from Stephanie’s publicity mentor, La Doll, who is trying to soften the image of a genocidal tyrant because her career collapsed in spectacular fashion around the same time that Sasha in the years before going to work for Bennie was perhaps working as a prostitute in Naples where she was discovered by her Uncle Ted who was on holiday from a bad marriage, and while not much more will be heard from him, Sasha will come to New York and attend N.Y.U. and work for Bennie before disappearing into the desert to sculpture and raise a family with her college boyfriend, Drew, while Bennie, assisted by Alex, a former date of Sasha’s from whom she lifted a wallet, soldiers on in New York, producing musicians (including the rediscovered guitarist Scotty) as the artistic world changes around him with the vertiginous speed of Moore’s Law.
**Other readers, like Greg Zimmerman and Mr. Charles below, have hypothesized that the main character is actually time. But I think music fits better. And this is my review, so I get to decide!
Other takes on the book:
“These kids are hopelessly adrift, convinced that everyone else around them can hear the beat they can’t.” – Ron Charles
Ready When You Are, C.B. has a Goon-worthy collections of charts, graphs and other modular elements that help explain the complexity of this book in very fun and creative ways.
“This is not a ‘lazy reader’ novel. This is a ‘bring it like you mean it’ novel.” – Jackie Cangro
Interestingly, Girl to the Rescue points out that many of the stories were previously published in literary journals and edited collections. That kind of changes how I think about the book! Did Egan set out to tell the story this way, or did she just want a collection of short stories that would catch readers’ attention?