2010. Knopf. Hardcover. 274 pages.
From: the library
Recommendation from: books i done read
In a nutshell:
This is a book of interconnected stories, with a different character as protagonist in each story. All the characters are loosely associated with each other, and a number of them work in the music industry.
In form, A Visit from the Goon Squad reminded me of Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists, that was also a book of interconnected short stories. But after finishing A Visit from the Goon Squad, I also thought of one of my favorite books, My Life by Lyn Hejinian, an experimental autobiography I first read in college. I didn’t love Egan’s book as I did Hejinian’s but I did like it, and there were aspects of it that brought a couple quotes from Hejinian to mind, and I have decided to use those quotes as a frame for my review. (Hejinian’s quotes are the ones in bold.)
It isn’t a small world, but there are many ways of dividing it into small parts.
I would get tired of interconnected short-story novels if I read them all the time, but I thought Egan used the form well. There was a definite pleasure in jumping into each new story/chapter and figuring out where it fit in chronologically and in the web of characters. Also, her story/chapter endings were very strong. Characters often found some sense of emotional resolution or realization, but I didn’t find them too pat. Scenes that stick in my mind include a character hiding in the night darkness of her own lawn after making a shattering discovery; another character and her daughter retiring to a quiet life after a dangerous international trip; a runaway young woman and her uncle watching the sunset out of a window in her squalid apartment in Europe.
It seemed that we had hardly begun and we were already there, watching people for an instant framed in windows, never finding out what happens to them, or what they mean.
A frustration with short stories is that sometimes I don’t know why this snippet of a character’s life was chosen, and most of all, why the author ended the story where he or she ended it. My favorite aspect of Goon Squad was the way Egan would “zoom out” various characters’ life paths . That is, within the flow of the story, Egan would insert in something like “so-and-so would later go on to attend university in New York City, become a brilliant engineer and then marry a girl named Lulu” (except a little longer than my paraphrase.) These “zoom-outs” were primarily used in the safari story although I seem to remember them cropping up in other stories as well. I don’t have the book on hand to check.
I think why I liked this device so well is that it emphasizes how fast life passes by. It’s like that film effect where the flicker of images is sped up faster than real-time – say on crowded city street – and then suddenly the camera lingers on a person’s face for a drawn-out pause, before taking off again. In these stories, we’re in that pause, we’re in that slowed-down present where details are felt in full, and everything is happening in the now. The future may be a zoomed-out blip at this point, but later we know, this present moment will be the blip.
Long time lines trail behind every idea, object, person, pet, vehicle, and event.
I was happy that Egan’s narrative chronology didn’t end with the year she was writing the book and that she took a stab at writing some near-future settings. The famous Power Point chapter is one of those near-future chapters and it is probably the best chapter in the whole book. It is written by a young girl as a form of journal, with the ‘pauses’ in rock songs forming a really beautiful central metaphor.
The Power Point chapter alludes to changes in the future world without being intrusive about it. The last chapter is more specific about what future American society looks like and it was rough in execution. Her allusions to the concessions made for the sake of homeland security seemed perfunctory. I could see where she was going with the transformation of the music industry and social media. However, there was not much time for these interesting ideas to be fully fleshed out, and so as a reader, I was set adrift by this last chapter. I liked the characterization and plot in previous chapters and disappointingly, that aspect wasn’t strong in the ending.
Other ‘meh’ chapters included the first two chapters and the one written like a magazine article. My favorite chapters were the aforementioned Power Point chapter, and the safari chapter.
Excerpts from other reviews:
Bibliofreak.net – “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 Lady’s Blog – “. . . Egan succeeds in not only telling several people’s stories but forcing readers to think about how we take in moments as they occur and how we reshape them when we talk about them later.”
The Broke and the Bookish – “Overall, A Visit From the Goon Squad was a quick, worthwhile read. It’s kind of all over the place thematically, and as you can tell I found the cool structure more remarkable than the actual plot, but I enjoyed it.”
6 responses to “A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan”
I loved that sort of “zoom out” she did, too. I’d love to reread the book soon and see how my experience changes now that I know all the characters; I can vaguely remember some mentions of characters in early stories that I didn’t really register, because I hadn’t yet read a story focused on that specific character.
I enjoyed your review and thought it fun that both our takes reacted to her choices of form, but in different ways. In case you want to link to it as well (but no pressure), I posted on this book too:
Ellen – I’m not sure that I would re-read the book – at least not anytime soon, but I do think it could pay off as far as having the added knowledge about the characters.
bookeywookey – Thanks for the link! I will probably leave a comment on your review itself rather than put my thoughts on it here in this reply comment. You should think about adding your blog to Fyrefly’s customized Book Blog Search engine, if you haven’t already. That’s what I use when I’m looking for a sample of review excerpts to include at the end of my posts.
This is one of those books that I have been meaning to try. I actually have the audio on ,my iPod. I enjoyed reading your thoughts.
I wonder how the Powerpoint chapter would be handled on audio!
Christy – Thanks for the comment and for the information about Fyrefly as well, I didn’t know about them.