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A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

May 19, 2011

Blurb

From Africa to Naples, New York to San Francisco, record producers to genocidal generals, Jennifer Egan tears through the lives of her characters with verve and guile. From the 1970s to our not too distant future, we follow Bennie Salazar, an aging music mogul, and Sasha, his young PA, on their journeys through childhood, parties, careers and lovers.

A Visit from the Goon Squad captures the moments where lives interact, as Bennie’s and Sasha’s fortunes ebb and flow; sometimes they are popular and affluent, other times down and out. Egan depicts with elegant prose and often heart-wrenching simplicity, the sad consequences for those who couldn’t fake it during their wild youth – madness, suicide or prison – in this captivating, wryly humorous story of temptation and loss.

 

Review

A Visit from the Goon Squad has most certainly had a lot of hype this year, with it winning the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. It is also scheduled to be adapted into a television series by HBO. With so much hype surrounding it, I had to see for myself whether it really is as good as people say it is. I can now safely say that it most certainly is!

It’s hard to describe this book as it really is a complex, experimental novel, with so many characters, and spanning so many years; it’s pretty hard to sum up in just a few sentences. The novel’s two main characters are Bennie Salazar, who owns his own record label, and his PA, Sasha. Each chapter is about a different set of characters, who we sometimes revisit, but who are all ultimately connected to Bennie or Sasha – whether they are friends, family or colleagues. The novel jumps back and forth in time, it isn’t a linear narration, far from it, but it is much easier to follow than you would expect. Each chapter is very experimental in terms of form and style. Some are written in the first person perspective, others third and second. There is one chapter written in the form of a news article, another in the form of a PowerPoint presentation. It’s this experimental nature that makes you smile in awe of Egan and her creativity and talent. It’s very easy to see why she has won the Pulitzer Prize.

We see Sasha as she struggles with her addiction to stealing random objects,  her living a life as a prostitute in Naples, her struggling with her best friend’s affections and his ultimate suicide, her job as PA for Bennie, and ultimately her family with all its ups and downs. Bennie, on the other hand, is first seen as a divorced single father, struggling to connect with his son, listening to some terrible band that he’s lost all faith in, and struggling to find any purpose to his life. Later we revisit him back in his youth as a bandmember of The Dildos, living the dream with his friends who all have a role to play throughout the book.

The characters aren’t always likeable; they are very much a product of their time – 1970s rock and roll – taking drugs of all forms, drinking far too much alcohol, having affairs and one-night-stands. Yet somehow by the end of it all, you find yourself feeling sympathetic towards them in a way you never really thought possible. It is very much a novel about time, with the phrase ‘time’s a goon’ quoted a couple of times in the book. It is about living out your youth, with your whole future ahead of you, wondering where your life is going, and it’s about looking back on those times, wondering where all that time went. The subplots about music in each chapter are also a reflection of time and how we are constantly evolving, constantly growing older, and yet somehow we are still the same inside.

By far the best chapter has to be the PowerPoint presentation. You will probably read this in most reviews you read of A Visit from the Goon Squad. I have never seen a PowerPoint presentation filled with so much emotion. This chapter is narrated by Sasha’s daughter, who has made these presentations into her diary, as she shows us the daily struggles of her family, particularly the difficult relationship between her father and her autistic brother. The utter simplicity of our human nature is mimicked in this simple use of squares, circles and arrows that leave little space for any text. It just goes to show that you don’t need pages and pages of flowery and descriptive prose to stir emotions inside you. Egan has trusted us to be able to read between the lines, and see what’s really going on here.

However, this isn’t a perfect novel, by all means. Some chapters were better than others. I struggled through a couple of them, and wondered what the point was in dedicating a whole chapter to very minor characters who I didn’t care much for. I was much more interested in Bennie and Sasha, and the people they grew up with. But I can’t fault Egan’s talent. A Visit from the Goon Squad really is a powerful novel that will stay with you long after you’ve read it. Each chapter could easily have become a novel in themselves, as Egan has worked so hard to create such great, believable yet flawed characters who have lives you just want to keep reading about. This could easily have been a disappointing novel, with Egan’s experimentation of form and style, there is the worry that this may have overshadowed the heart of the story. But Egan’s managed to balance the two brilliantly, leaving us in awe of her talent, and envying her creativity.

I only wonder how Egan will be able to follow this with her next book, but either way I know I will definitely be excited to read more of her work.

A Visit from the Goon Squad is out now, published by Corsair, imprint of Constable and Robinson.

Rating: 

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. May 21, 2011 12:02

    Sounds like the sort of book I might well enjoy – I’m a fan of the Johns Fowles & Irving … and whenever I broaden my reading I seem to enjoy it… An intriguing review, thanks.

    • May 21, 2011 15:01

      Thanks for your comment Mark! I always keep meaning to read some Irving but just haven’t got around to it yet.

      I’ve sent an email to Harper Collins to try and get a proof of Prince of Thorns so I can review it. Looks like a great read 🙂

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