25 March 2011

Book Review: A Visit from the Goon Squad


 (NB: On the left is the hardcover/ARC edition and on the right is the new paperback edition.  While I find the left one more visually appealing, the abstract pb cover art I think is more appropriate and less misleading.)

A Visit From the Goon Squad  by Jennifer Egan has been earning so many accolades that I finally picked it up to see what it's all about.  My sales rep from Random House, Ann Kingman, gave me a copy of the book in ARC form last year but I never got around to reading it (though I did buy it for my nephew for Christmas 2010 based on the reviews).  The New York Times named it a Top 10 Book of that year and now it's also the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award (incidentally, the prize I most respect out of the "Big Three" literary prizes in the US: the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, and the NBCC). I have read and enjoyed two of Egan's previous novels, so it's a bit of a surprise that it took me this long to get to this one.  

While I cannot say that I loved it, I can say that it's a pretty impressive and more than a little interesting novel.  What none of the reviews I read mentioned, however, is that it seems to be less a cohesive novel than a full length work of disjointed stories.  The key characters are so randomly interspersed throughout the book that it took more than a little effort to keep up with them, though admittedly that might have more to do with my attention span this week.  In most cases I just write up my own little cast of characters and chart them, but I didn't care enough about these people to do that.

The book's description tells us that Bennie and Sasha are the main characters, but since they don't actually appear in most of the book, I'm not sure I agree with that assessment.  Mostly the book jumps back and forth in chronology and we get various back stories and future stories for Bennie and Sasha, which means we're hearing more about their parents, children, uncle, spouses, bosses and significant others than we do about Bennie, a music mogul, and Sasha, his erstwhile assistant.  Along the way, Egan takes us for a ride through American pop culture with sidetrips to African for a safari, to Naples for a look at the city's underbelly, and to NYU for reasons that remain unclear to me.  We get alternating first, third, and even second person points of view (used with only limited success) and sometimes it takes longer than it ought for the reader (and I figure I'm at least as astute as most) to figure out just who the heck we're dealing with and where in the overarching chronology of the book we are.

Which is not to say I disliked the book or think it's not good, despite the bizarre section near the end that is done in the style of a Power Point presention, presumably to show how an autistic child named Lincoln sees the world visually and compartmentally.  The narrative problem, however, is that the point of view seems to be from his sister Ally, so the Power Point becomes more an elaborate ruse than an essential part of the story.  And yet, by the time I closed the book tonight and reflected on the ride Egan took me on, I was left feeling like this really is a novel of our time, reflecting the disjointedness and fragmentation of our society.

Egan's prose is always serviceable and occasionally elegant.  Here's a short passage that I liked, which I'd say is pretty representative of her style: "But eventually a sort of amnesia had overtaken Susan; her rebellion and hurt and melted away, deliquesced into a sweet, eternal sunniness that was terrible in the way that life would be terrible, Ted supposed, without death to give it urgency and shape."  I think this may be the first time that I've encountered deliquesce as a verb, and it's a word worth using.

A Visit from the Goon Squad is, for me at least, a more interesting read than a great one, but I am quite glad that I went along for the ride.  I recommend it for people who don't mind working a little bit at their novels and for those looking for something a little off the beaten track in terms of narrative and structure.

Edited on 18 April 2011 to add: Today this book won the Pulitzer Prize.  I'm just a little bit surprised that it nailed two out of the three major literary awards in the US...

7 comments:

  1. Great review.

    I don't mind working at a novel, but I am becoming numbed by the use of too many characters. Marquez was the most recent author to do it to me.

    I just enjoy so much getting into a character's head and heart - hard to do with so many of them.

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  2. Interesting -- there is a story in the 2010 edition of BASS by Egan called "The Safari." I wonder if that story is part of the 'novel.' I'm really excited it read the book myself.

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  3. Yes, really good measured review - and I do want to read this now. I rather like the idea of interlinked stories and the way different characters interweave in unexpected ways.

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  4. Monica, I agree with you in part. The novels I like best are the ones where I get into the head and heart of at least one of the characters.

    Buried (is that you, Em?), I'd be very much surprised if that story isn't the basis for the safari chapter in this book.

    Deborah, I think I would have enjoyed the book more if I'd known from the get-go that it was more like interlinked stories. I kept looking for cohesion and rarely found it; there was certainly a synchronicity at the end,though.

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  5. I actually like your review better than mine! You managed to offer a fine balance of what works and what contributes to the feeling, upon closing this novel, that one should have been more moved or impressed than one actually was. When you visited my review, I thought about writing back to you that you needn't buy yourself a copy as it wasn't one of those books one's likely to re-read or to hold onto as an object that conjures a treasured reading experience. However, I do agree that, all in all, the piling on of fictions led to a loosely structured 'whole' experience.

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  6. The powerpoint would have been much more interesting and made much more sense if it was created by Lincoln. I love that idea - too bad it wasn't included. And I agree, interesting is a good word for this book, and I probably could have appreciated that element more if it wasn't for all the hype.

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    1. Yes, I think you've nailed it. Any reader casually approaching this book after all of the award buzz is sure to be questioning its value, I feel.

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