Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Natanya Reviews A Visit From the Goon Squad

Title/Author: A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Publisher/Date: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010
Where I got it: Library
Why I read it: I kept hearing about it everywhere, and then Goodreads started a summer challenge for this book, so I put it on my summer reading list.

From Amazon:
We begin in contemporaryish New York with kleptomaniac Sasha and her boss, rising music producer Bennie Salazar, before flashing back, with Bennie, to the glory days of Bay Area punk rock, and eventually forward, with Sasha, to a settled life. By then, Egan has accrued tertiary characters, like Scotty Hausmann, Bennie's one-time bandmate who all but dropped out of society, and Alex, who goes on a date with Sasha and later witnesses the future of the music industry. Egan's overarching concerns are about how rebellion ages, influence corrupts, habits turn to addictions, and lifelong friendships fluctuate and turn. Or as one character asks, “How did I go from being a rock star to being a fat fuck no one cares about?” Egan answers the question elegantly, though not straight on, as this powerful novel chronicles how and why we change, even as the song stays the same.

While the plot is certainly interesting (and I think the above synopsis sums it up well), what really makes A Visit From the Goon Squad stand out is its structure, which I loved, in part for its uniqueness. The novel is a series of linked vignettes, where each story tells about a period in the life of someone, generally a person who was a minor character in the previous story. While this structure has the potential to end up choppy, I think Egan did a great job at telling us just enough and then smoothly moving onto the next person, though I did sometimes get the people mixed up. She also often switched to a completely different time—one chapter may take place when these people (many of whom are about the same age) were teenagers, and the next may take place when they’re middle-aged—so the fact that the book read pretty smoothly was all the more surprising.

On top of that, within each chapter Egan often suddenly explains what will happen to a certain character later in life. It made me really see these people from a different perspective, knowing what they would do and feel like in the future. I thought this was a really interesting stylistic move, and I think it allowed Egan to say a lot more about each person than she could just say within the story she was telling. However, I did find it a little odd how bluntly she threw out these details of people’s futures. The story would be going along, and then suddenly she’d say something like, “and then 20 years later so and so got addicted to crack.” It’s a very “these are the facts and that’s just how it is” kind of description, which I both liked and disliked. It was interesting because, without any emotions connected to them, I could work through how they got to that point myself, which was kind of fun. But it was annoying because it made the narration fall flat a bit…it just seemed odd to have such an emotionless narration.

The final interesting structural element—and one which I think, at least according to a poll on Goodreads, a lot of people love the best, including myself—is the “slide diary,” which is a chapter consisting entirely of powerpoint slides with diagrams, making up a piece of the diary of a 12-year-old girl. I thought it was an awesome idea, and it actually got a lot of the emotions and themes of the book through better than the prose did at times. I also think Egan made a good decision in only making these slides a single chapter of the novel because I think a lot of their appeal is in their suddenness and uniqueness. The only problem is that the transition back from these slides into the final chapter of the book doesn’t work very well. Though really, in my opinion the final chapter of the book just didn’t work very well as a whole. This chapter tells us what happens to a lot of these people, but—except for the very, very end (which is good)—it doesn’t seem like an ending, just another story.

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. Some characters were more annoying than others, but they all were fascinating and unique, and Egan’s style of storytelling is quirky and fun. And if you’re interested in reading a somewhat non-standardly structured novel, I would definitely recommend this one.

4 stars


  1. Glad to hear you enjoyed this - yeah, it's a really good novel, I think! I loved the idea of music as a symbol for the march of time (since time's a goon, right?) - but you're right: several other themes (relationships, second chances, etc.) are explored to in more depth than you'd think would be possible in such a short novel. Nice review!

  2. The last chapter really ruined the book for me. I liked it up until then (LOVED the slide diary!) and then the last chapter was just too weird for me. Good review!

  3. I just finished Goon Squad this morning...I've been in a reading slump of sorts lately, just stuck on a few slow-going books, and I read this in about a day. I was surprised by how much I loved the slide diary, which when I looked at before reading didn't strike me as offering much. What I liked about it is that, like you say, some of the work's themes are well-expressed in the diary, and it gives you a way to view the rest of the stories. Like Greg wrote, we've got this music/time thing going on, and the pauses in music offers a nice way to think of all the gaps in the stories.

    I liked the glimpses into characters' futures Egan gave us, too. Mostly that while we couldn't always understand them at the moment we read them, or sometimes the information comes later than we might like (Sasha & Drew marrying, the confirmation that Rob really did drown), we would get these surprising glimpses of lives that are satisfying precisely because we didn't expect them. Much like the minute of music following an extended pause!

  4. I was hesitant about adding this to the ole'TBR but think I am going to put it on. Nice review!

    Beth ^_^

  5. A colleague of mine was just raving about this today, insisting that I have to read it. I must say, I do want to see this slide diary thing for myself.

  6. Sounds interestingly unique. Definitely going in the TBR pile!


  7. I'm so glad you enjoyed this one so much because it's my book club's pick for next month and it's gotten so much hype I wasn't sure it was worth it.


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