A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan book cover
A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010) is Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize winning, episodic novel about time and memory, cyclicality and fragmentation, and life and loss in an increasingly chaotic world. At the novel’s centre are music mogul Benny Salazar and his kleptomaniac assistant, Sasha, but each chapter is written from a different character’s perspective, all of whom are connected to either Benny or Sasha in some way. The result is thirteen short stories spanning over 40 years and held disjointedly together by a few recurring themes and relationships.

In loosely following a generation of characters and those in the periphery of their lives, A Visit from the Goon Squad deals with the passing of time and the fading of dreams and aspirations, a well-worn subject and one that is difficult to explore in such a fragmented novel. The disjointed nature, though, draws out the idea of both physical and emotional distance, with many characters never able to reach their goals and living in a state of inner dissonance and disharmony. However, this discontinuity is an illusion; the characters lives intersect and collide continually amongst the chaos of their existence, evocative of the butterfly effect.

The structure of the novel is complex and at times disorientating, with leaps in both time and viewpoint between most chapters. In achieving this, Egan utilizes a range of narrative perspectives, including first, second and third person narration, and whilst this is often justified within the context of the individual chapter the overall effect is untidy. With the story constantly jumping between voices it’s hard to empathise with, and warm to any of the characters, never mind keep track of their relation to the more memorable personalities. Egan’s style though, is bold and experimental. One chapter, relayed by way of a PowerPoint presentation, sparked particular discussion: a Sterne-esque experimentation with the medium or a pretentious and unreadable gimmick? Ultimately, there is too much variety in the writing; the constant changes in tense, perspective, and style become irritating and create the impression of recklessness mixed with literary grandiosity rather than well considered stylistic choices.

The book is achingly, self-consciously cool. Using the music industry as a backdrop is always going to be a minefield and it is doubtful whether Egan pulls this off. However, the composition of the novel is interesting, and its jumbled effect, jumping between prophecy and hindsight, proves an innovative way of presenting the passing of time and its effects. Sadly, too much of the writing is clunky, bland, and often inelegant (“I’m like America”). One must applaud Egan for attempting such an inventive novel, but sadly the execution is poor and the overall impression is a messy, soulless work.

Despite all the great press about this book, and the various prizes that followed I really couldn't get into it. Too much of the writing was dull and predictable, none of the characters were very interesting, and the whole thing felt messy, overly complex, and stylistically over the top.

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Reviews of A Visit from the Goon Squad on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of A Visit from the Goon Squad on Amazon (US)

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