A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Jennifer Egan
Jennifer Egan

I’m often wary of books that win big prizes; hesitant to read them either because I worry that I’ll be disappointed after all the hype, or that I’ll be overwhelmed by their worthiness.

A Visit From The Goon Squad won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2011 and I don’t know anyone else who has read it yet, so I came to it with a fresh attitude and a liking for its quirky cover. I know they say don’t judge a book by its cover, but I usually do. I’m not often at a loss for words when talking about novels, but this one has left me unsure of how to express what I felt about it. It is an incredible book; unlike anything else I’ve read.

I think Jennifer Egan has perhaps invented a new genre. Some people have likened it to a collection of short stories, however I didn’t experience as such. I found it to be a book with a thread that ran through it, sometimes taut, at other times winding back on itself, sometimes slack. The writing had a rhythm to it that beat through the chapters, with each note tripping on one after the other, each separate but connected to make a concerto.

Egan follows none of the accepted writing rules through this book. She writes in the first person, the plural first person, the third person and even the second person. She writes in the past tense, present tense and future tense. There is no set plot. Different narrative techniques are used, including a journalist’s report on an interview with a movie star (with footnotes included) and, incredibly, a Power Point presentation put together by a teenager about her family, which runs for 74 pages. She writes with a mixture of irony, black humour, poignancy and sadness.

Book cover

And it all works – she has produced a book that is totally captivating and kept me fascinated for hours.

A goon squad often refers to a group of thugs, employed by someone to beat other people up; however the goon in this book is Time. Egan writes: “Time’s a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?” Scotty shook his head. “The goon won.” She studies the effect of time on the characters, on how past behaviours have affected present situations and how present actions might affect future events.

If there are main characters in this book, the two main protagonists would be Sasha, a kleptomaniac, who we meet in the first chapter, and Bennie,her boss, an aging music executive. Tendrils curl out from these two, drawing in other characters, all of whom are related to each other in some way; and thus the chapters gain a rhythm. It sounds as though it may be confusing, but it wasn’t to me. Egan creates each character perfectly. Bennie, for example, sprinkles gold flakes into his coffee in the belief that it will make him more potent. La Doll (a disgraced PR agent) works for a genocidal African dictator, who I’m sure Egan based on Robert Mugabe. The children in the book aren’t cute and innocent; they are shrewd observers of the situations they find themselves in because of the adults around them.

If there were a theme, or themes, to this book, I suppose it would be music and time, and how music changes through the passing of time, yet I feel such a definition would narrow the scope of the book. It is a book that has to be read, rather than explained, as I believe each person’s experience of it will be different.

I certainly have to read it again, as I feel as though I have just scratched the surface of it. I would highly recommend it and would love to get feedback from others as to what they think of it.

 

 

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Author: Nella

Passionate reader, sometime writer, part-time librarian. I couldn't survive without books. And, I suppose, my children. Or my cats. Or my dog. I read books and look after others.

11 thoughts on “A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan”

  1. Hi Nella!

    I ‘read’ this (I do it by audiobook) over the Christmas holidays.
    I don’t think it’s a new genre really. My old bookclub loved books by Sheila O’Flanagan that also connected the characters in them… people on the London Underground, people in a hotel, etc. The book I’m reading now is similar: Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk.
    I think what Jennifer Egan did was to use a massive timescale very well (thirty years?) which made the whole story more of an epic than is usual ‘common thread’ short story collections. I think she did it really well too, from Sasha’s student days in Italy to her motherhood in Mexico, the character development was really well handled. The other characters too. I love the way she tied it up at the end with the appearance of Lulu.
    There were really poignant moments in the book, frightening examples of the dare-devil attitude of youth, and a strong reminder of the dangers of drug use. How did Ms. Egan manage even to write in a fiendish dictator! The range of characters is mind-boggling! I loved them all, one way or another.
    If there was a character I would have wanted more from, it was Rolf. For me, I still need to read that story.

    Regards
    Lorraine

    PS: I must actually meet you one day as I have heard about you from Sally Wells and Maire Fisher – both say you come highly recommended!

    1. Hi Lorraine – how good to hear we have mutual friends and I would love to meet you sometime.

      I don’t think I’ve read anything by Sheila O’Flanagan, but I have read Arlington Park and I found it to be quite different from A Visit From the Goon Squad, in that I felt there were five distinct characters around whom things happen. I have it sitting in my bookcase, though, and will try it again sometime. Rachel Cusk is my supervisor for the MA in Creative Writing that I’m doing through Kingston University and she has humbled me greatly – there I thought I could write.

      Regards
      Nella

  2. Hi Nella, I also enjoyed this book a lot. Found it totally intriguing to try and work out with each new character how he or she was connected to the others. It felt like a detailed study of the ‘six degrees of Kevin Bacon’ theory. In its structure, it reminded me a lot of ‘Seven Types of Ambiguity’, a wonderful novel by Australian writer Elliot Perlman, and also of ‘Great House’ by Nicole Kraus. I love the way all these books weave together peoples’ stories through the indirect and often coincidental twists and turns of life.

    1. I haven’t read Seven Types of Ambiguity, so thanks for telling me about it. One day I’ll get to reading it, but now that life has started again in the new year, who knows when.

  3. Okay, so I have steered clear of this book as well because of all of the buzz. But now reading your review my interest is piqued. I may have to give in on this one. Thank you for the review.

  4. I am translating that book into Turkish for an MA project. I enjoy translating it really so much, but it is really challenging as much. It is an extraordinary genre for English writing, it is not easy to put it into Turkish. I work like a detective more than a translator. It is very hard for me to keep the book’s spirit in Turkish. It has a magical rhythm.

  5. Your challenge sounds daunting; I love how you say you work like a detective rather than a translator. I would imagine it is difficult to keep true to Egan’s style of writing. Good luck!

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