A Visit from the Goon Squad

I listened to Jennifer Egan’s novel The Keep a couple years ago, and didn’t like it much; I didn’t believe in the characters or the plot, and therefore the whole thing got irritating. I’m glad I gave Jennifer Egan another chance, though, because I loved A Visit from the Goon Squad. This time, I believed in both the characters and plot, and I loved the book’s structure and its narrative energy. It’s one of those books that both tells a good story and leaves you feeling like you understand the world just a bit better.

The story is fairly complicated, not because it has a complex plot, but because it tells the stories of a lot of different people. We start with one of the main characters, Sasha, in a therapy session where she discusses her habit of stealing things, and then the next chapter introduces us to Bennie, a music industry executive who is visiting a band to see if his company should still represent them. Sasha is Bennie’s assistant and has been for many years. At one point, Bennie makes a pass at Sasha, but she wisely turns him down, and their relationship stays close in the way you can be close to someone you work with without really knowing much about that person at all.

From there, the chapters skip around in time and shift focus on to the people important in Sasha’s and Bennie’s lives. The two main characters never disappear, but they are sometimes on the sidelines as we learn about, say, the people Bennie went to high school with, Bennie’s wife and her life story, the story of the woman Bennie’s wife worked for, the story of the man Bennie’s high school friend ran away with, the story of a man Sasha had a brief fling with, and others. The point of view shifts from chapter to chapter, sometimes in third person, sometimes in first, and once in second. One chapter consists of a article draft written by one of the characters, and one long chapter consists of a journal created by one of the characters using PowerPoint.

If you had asked me before reading this book what I thought about the fictional possibilities of PowerPoint, I would have laughed in your face (politely, of course!). But Egan pulls it off, and this is one of the book’s most moving sections. There’s something about the small number of words on each page and the way those words are strategically arranged that makes some of the pages feel poetic and causes the emotions expressed to come through powerfully.

What it all adds up to is a picture of interlocking worlds, that of the music business in New York City, teenage life in California, suburban enclaves in Westchester, a safari in Africa, teenage prostitutes in Naples, Italy, all connected by people who know each other or have affected each other’s lives in some way. There is a lot going on in the book, but Egan keeps control of the material, partly through the connections amongst all the characters, but also through the energy and insight of the book as a whole. The moods of the different sections vary — there is humor, absurdity, darkness, hope, sadness — but there is a compassion for the characters and an excitement about life that runs through the whole. Egan manages to strike the right notes right up until the end.

I’m not sure what I think about the book’s title, though. We find out in the book that “the goon squad” refers to time, as in “time’s a goon,” which makes sense and fits the book exactly right. But I didn’t know what “goon squad” meant until I read the book, and up until that point I thought it was pretty silly. I hope the title doesn’t push anybody away from reading what really is a great book.

13 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

13 responses to “A Visit from the Goon Squad

  1. I have heard only good things about this book and I am so excited to read it. I even have a copy and everything! And yet. I keep holding off because I so strongly suspect I will love it and I fee like I don’t want to “waste” it… which is crazy, I know! I don’t know why I am avoiding something I think I will like so much, because clearly I should spend my time reading good books and yet something inside me resists for now.

  2. I suspect ‘Goon’ has entirely different connotations in the UK if not an actually different meaning due to the never-ending popularity of a 1950s/60s radio programme called ‘The Goon Show’. You probably have to have a very English sense of humour to appreciate it. Anyway, it meant that I came to your review expecting something very different from the book you described. I wonder, is there some reaction to Elizabeth Strout’s success with ‘Olive Kitteridge’ going on here: the idea that you can learn about a character by exploring tangential aspects of their life? I think I might try this book and explore that further.
    It’s snowing heaven’s high again here as I write. Definitely a day for staying indoors and curling up with a good book!

  3. I’ve heard good things about this too, and hope to read it when it’s released over here. I do have a copy of The Keep, and I’d like to give it a try – you never know, it might hit the spot one day!

  4. This is one of those books that I’ve heard almost only positive things about. I recall it being mentioned as a book that takes on the multiple interlocking characters idea and does it well. Based on your review, it seems that this is a common sentiment (and true!). I have a hit-or-miss relationship with books of this kind, but it seems like I ought to give Goon Squad a shot.

    Also: I actually really like the title. It’s got a bit of hip weirdness (coupled with the cover), but it’s not so strange it’s off-putting. It’s certainly eye-catching…

  5. I read Egan’s The Invisible Circus years ago and recall liking it, but I had to admit the title of this one made me not want to pick it up. I’m glad you liked it, though, and just found out today my library is ordering it, so I will have to check it out when it comes in. I like the idea of exploring a character through the eyes of those around him/her and must read Olive Kitteridge sometime as well!

  6. It sounds like an interesting book and I’d like to pick it up.

  7. I wonder if you might enjoy The Keep more if you were to re-visit it now; many of the comments that you’ve made about this one fit with my memory of that earlier novel (although I didn’t have an uncomplicated experience of reading that one myself either). This one is definitely on my list now!

  8. Steph — when you’re ready for it, it will be there! I can understand wanting to wait until the right time; it’s easy to “spoil” a book by reading it when the time isn’t right and not liking it as much as you could have.

    Annie — it’s been snowing here too, and I’m tired of it! Interesting point about Olive Kitteridge. There definitely seems to be a trend toward linked short stories these days, and the Egan book is very much like that. Perhaps the Egan book is a little more novelistic than OK was, but not much. I’d be curious to see what you think.

    Litlove — if I reread The Keep right now, I might end up liking it very much, who knows. I’d love to hear how you think the two compare.

    Biblibio — describing the title as “hip weirdness” makes sense, and it suits the book exactly. I guess I’m just not sure it fits the book in the way people might think it will. Anyway, I’ve only read a few books of the “linked stories” variety, and I’ve enjoyed them so far. I hope you like this one!

    Danielle — well, I hope my discussion of the book might dissuade you from letting the title turn you away, at least if you are at all interested in reading the book. I like that structure as well, and I wonder what other books I might find that fit in the category.

    Lilian — it is, and I hope you enjoy it!

    BuriedinPrint — good question, and I’m not sure. Perhaps the more realistic, familiar setting of this one makes it easier to accept for me. I hope you enjoy this book when you get to it!

  9. I love the part about Powerpoint. So clever. I’m going to pick it up if just to see how she did that. After 15 years in Corporate America, all I knew in writing was “Powerpoint speak”!

  10. Melissa — it IS clever, and I found it so surprising, since I hate PowerPoint!

  11. This sounds good and a little different from the normal but not so different that it is off-putting

  12. I really want to read this now especially after reading your review and learning at the same time from another source that she just won the Pulitzer. Like you, I read a previous book of her, Look At Me and didn’t like it so I’ve been hesitant about picking this one up.

  13. Pingback: A Visit from the Goon Squad – Jennifer Egan – 3/10 | Reading Fuelled By Tea

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