May 26, 2011

A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan

A Visit from the Goon Squad is the newly minted Pulitizer Prize winner in fiction.

My book club selected it just before the winners were announced, clearly making us on the cusp of literary trends. Or something.

I have to say, I'm not quite sure how to review this renowned work, because, well, because I didn't love it.

In fact, it took me 251 pages to like it. Why?

Plot: I'm not sure you can say this book had a plot. At least not in the traditional beginning, middle, climax, end terms of plotting.

The book revolves around two characters -- Benny Salazar and Sasha. He's a record exec, she's his assistant. Over the course of a couple hundred pages, the reader is plunged into their world, and the worlds of their friends and acquaintances. The book starts in one decade, takes a jump back a decade, and then leaps two decades forward. It's all over the place and I felt a bit like a pinball, being thrust from one place and person to the next, not really remembering where I was or who these people were.

Characters: The book shines on the character front. I spent early parts of the book wondering why the heck I was supposed to care about this washed up record executive and his klepto assistant. But the secondary characters are quirky, outlandish and heartbreaking. And after awhile, even Sasha and Benny grow on you. The only frustrating part was because of the volume of characters and the lack of a coherent structure/plot, I had trouble remembering who was who and linking them to one another.

Finally, in the last three chapters (the future, so to speak) the characters start to come together and I saw the overarching theme. This made both the plot and the characters gel and made me (finally!) appreciate both.

Structure: What structure? Sure, there were chapters (one is comprised entirely of PowerPoint slides!), but without any sort of chronological or other obvious timing cue, the reader just gets lost. The timing cues are embedded in the dialogue and descriptions and frankly, it took more work and re-reading on my part than I care to invest in following a story.

It's hard for me to judge this one. As much as I hated the book until the very end, I also have an appreciation for it now that I've finished it and see the whole picture. I will say that had this been a collection of short stories, I would have loved it.

At the end of the day, it's different. It's modern. It gives us a glimpse of the intensity at which the world is changing as that goon, time, passes us by. For these reasons, I can see why it won the Pulitzer. But for me, I have to go with a measly 3 stars.


  1. Interesting take on the book. I actually really, really enjoyed this myself, but I can see how the fact that it takes a little work to understand the time cues (though that wasn't an issue for me) and doesn't have a straightforward structure can turn readers off.

    But I don't understand your statement that had this been a collection of short stories, you would've loved it. Why would that have been different? Just curious...

  2. Greg,

    Thanks for commenting! For me, the book actually felt like a collection of short stories. Each chapter was wrapped up in a nice little bow with interesting characters and an interesting plot/backstory. For me, it became problematic to try to put chapter 1 together with chapter 2 and so on. Had they been individuals stories, and thus stood independently, I would have viewed the book differently. But, because it was a novel, I needed to see the interplay of every chapter and the development of one cohesive plot. And finally, two chapters from the end, I got it. But it took me that long ;-)

  3. Interesting review, I've still got this on my to-read list. But in many places this book IS classified as a story collection; even as a "novel" I've only seen it described as one composed of linked short stories. Do you think your reading experience would have been significantly different if you had entered the work thinking of it as linked stories rather than as a novel with a traditional narrative arc?

  4. Hi Ellen,

    I probably would have gone into the book with a different perspective. Though truthfully, the book jacket does a decent job of preparing you for the whirlwind-though clearly I didn't take the hints.

    I also think it would have helped had I read it in longer sittings instead of short spurts. Putting it down frequently didn't help me link people together.

    Finally, I continue to think about the book days later and I am glad I read it. I think it will make for a great book club discussion. So i still consider it a worthy read even if it isn't at the top of my list.


Thanks for joining our discussion of this book!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...