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Book Review: A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

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A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars

National Book Critics Circle Award Winner
PEN/Faulkner Award Finalist
Pulitzer Prize Winner 2011

One of the Best Books of the Year: Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, The Daily Beast, The Miami Herald, The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Newsday, NPR’s On Point, O, the Oprah Magazine, People, Publishers Weekly, Salon, San Francisco Chronicle, Seattle Times, Slate, Time, The Washington Post, and Village Voice

I thought this was pretty good. To me it felt like I was reading a 90s independent art film where a variety of people’s stories are told and the viewer is left to figure out how it all fits together. Each chapter is a different character from the previous chapter, but all the characters’ lives intersect in some way or at some time. Some reviewers complained that the cover made it seem like the book was about music. It is, but only as a context. Not as a major theme, really. The edition I read had a cover with different transparent people in different colors all doing a different motion, and all superimposed on each other. This is a brilliant cover and perfectly represents the concept of the novel.

There were moments that I absolutely loved, like Sasha’s opening chapter. She is so open and vulnerable to us, it’s charming. I also absolutely loved the powerpoint chapter. I thought it was a brilliant way to create narrative out of an alternative format, and the story it told really came through to me. I heard an interview on NPR recently where publishers are able to tell when readers skip parts of a book on their ereader. Jennifer Egan was interviewed because her publishers have discovered that most readers skip the powerpoint chapter, and she was asked if she thought that perhaps she should have either left it out or written it differently. She responded that she felt the powerpoint chapter was the most important chapter in the whole book. That being said, I looked forward to reading the chapter and was not disappointed.

There are some things that are “tricksy” about the novel, such as the powerpoint chapter, the footnotes a la David Foster Wallace, and the multiple viewpoints. It didn’t always seem like it was crucial to the story, and for me wasn’t where Egan excelled. Instead, she excelled at getting into the minds of her characters and carefully describing their world. As I writer, I find it hard to use such devices, especially ones that have been done before to great success. It makes it feel like the writer is trying too hard, much like those 90s movies always felt like they were trying to hard, at the expense of the enjoyment of its audience.

In retrospect, I realized that the only chapters that felt like they were a 90s indie film were chapters that were most likely SET in the 90s or 00s. The chapters set in the future felt different, in a way that seemed appropriate for their time period. The fact that I felt the 90s and 00s means that Egan did her work well. I didn’t particularly enjoy them because I never liked those kinds of films, and frankly it’s hard going into a pulitzer prize winning novel about contemporary topics without a little bit of skepticism and a bar set pretty darn high for perfection. Especially when it’s been so often related to David Foster Wallace, who I thought was just brilliant. But the more I think about Egan’s novel, the more I appreciate about what she did. It doesn’t hit me over the head with powerful things, but I do think it’s a slow burn.

Ultimately, I enjoyed the book on several different levels. I’m a slow reader, and so when I went back to Goon Squad I had to remind myself not only of what was happening in the chapter I was on, but also what had happened to all the other people, and when, and how it might relate to or impact the current chapter. I don’t think that’s a fair way to read a book like Goon Squad, because so much of what makes a chapter relate is done in the sort of subtle way that happens in life. That being said, I look forward to reading it again, all the way through. Maybe on a long plane trip or a beach vacation where I’ve left my laptop at home and my cellphone is dead. (Is that the modern equivalent of “when pigs fly”?)

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