Review: A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

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.

Useful Links
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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quirky girls said...

I think I liked it for many of the reasons you didn't. I tend to like stories that cross generations. I also really liked the experimental quality of the writing and there were some passages that I thought were well written and resonant. I did really like the powerpoint presentation too. I thought it was creative and was appropriate for the character's whose voice it was in. I also thought it demonstrated quite well what it is like to communicate with an autistic person. It sounded like her brother may have had Asperger's.

Despite the fact that we both had differing opinions on the book, I enjoyed your review and found it to be well-written. I also like the fact that while you may not have liked the book, you gave your opinion in a professional way without resorting to trash talking. I really appreciate that quality.

bibliofreak said...

Thanks for the kind comments about my review, great to have feedback.

I normally enjoy cross-generational novels, so I was a little surprised not to be affected by the characters at all. I'm all for experimental writing, and I really applaud Egan for all the innovative elements of the novel, but sadly most didn't work for me. The PowerPoint chapter was a really interesting one. I have to admit it felt a little gimmicky to me. I think you can write about autistic characters without using such clunky devices (e.g. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time), but it was an interesting way of presenting the story even if I found it mildly irritating from a reader's perspective.

Thanks for your comment, I always welcome well-considered and interesting opinion so I hope to hear more from you in the future.

Yellow Wallpaper Writers said...

Hi Matt: Thanks for stopping by. Your comment on Goon Squad inspired me to write one of my own, after which I came here and read your review. Rather glad to see that many of your reactions mirrored my own! I was starting to feel very stodgy and unexperimental. Best, k

Great blog, btw.

bibliofreak said...

Thanks for the comment Karen, have just been reading your thoughts. It's amazing how much this book is dividing opinion, but for me I just can't see it as a great literary work. Definitely don't feel unexperimental or stodgy; breaking the rules doesn't mean a piece of writing is necessarily worth admiration, and A Visit from the Goon Squad is a perfect example of that for me.

Look forward to reading more of your opinions in the future.

Anonymous said...

So great to have found your blog. What a thoughtful review. I could certainly understand your feelings on this one.
There were many times I had to reread passages to figure out exactly what was going on which was frustrating.
Looking forward to reading more of your reviews.

bibliofreak said...

Glad to hear from you Jacquelin, and pleased you enjoyed the review. You're quite right, at the start of each new chapter there was a great deal of re-orientation needed, and after a while this did become a little tedious. Still, it's made me want to try some Egan's other books, she's certainly an inventive writer and I'm quite sure I'll find something of hers worth reading!

Rose City Reader said...

I am also so pleased to find your blog. Your description of what kinds of books you like to read and how you pick them read like an articulate description of my own reading tastes.

I just picked this one up as an audiobook from the library. Now I am rethinking. How can I read the Powerpoint chapter with my ears? Hmmmmmm . . .

In general, I confess that I am a little worn out on novels as short stories. First Olive Kitteridge (Pulitzer), then Let the Great World Spin (National), and now this one -- American prize committees seem to be in a rut.

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

Thank you, and thanks for all the comments. I'm glad our reading tastes overlap - I should be able to pick up plenty of recommendations from your own blog, always welcome.

I'd give it a go in audio, I imagine the stilted communication style will still come across, and we all know how PowerPoint presentations work so your imagination won't be overly taxed. Would be great to know what you think after you get through it. I'm finding such a mix of opinions that it's hard to second guess how people will take it.

You're right, there has been a lot of short story novels of late, I'm feeling a little drained myself. Not to mention all the POV books that flick around Pulp Fiction style. A technique so often used, but rarely mastered.

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