on October 25, 2010
Although the book, itself, was thought provoking and cleverly structured, I would warn anyone who elects to read the book digitally that the "powerpoint" chapters are extremely difficult to read on the Kindle. The print is so small and the back grounds so dark that even a magnifying glass was little help. The font size selection feature on the Kindle did not work on the "slides" for those chapters.
on May 5, 2010
After reading a few chapters of Jennifer Egan's latest novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, I'd determined it was really a collection of linked stories more than a novel. Reading further, however, I saw the larger themes and the cohesiveness of the whole. It is, indeed, a novel, and an excellent one at that!
The book opens sometime in the recent past, and kleptomaniac Sasha is recounting a story to her therapist. Her former boss, record producer Benny Salazar, is mentioned in passing. The next chapter takes place several years earlier. Here Sasha is still Benny's assistant, and now it is he that is the first person narrator. Benny's just trying to get through a visit with his pre-teen son while mentally stifling a lifetime's worth of shame. He reflects, in passing, on his old high school gang, and in the next chapter we're back in San Francisco, circa 1980, with them. Benny wants Alice, but Alice wants Scotty. Scotty wants Jocelyn, but teenage Jocelyn is seeing Lou, a record producer more than twice her age. Don't worry, he'll get his chapter.
They all get a chapter or two or three. The story skips back and forth in time and place. The voice moves from first person to third person and even to second. Asides or characters that seemed tangential become central. And eventually several themes become apparent. The main one is not even subtle, as the traversing between points A and B is referenced several times in various ways. Scotty at one point asks, "I want to know what happened between A and B." An aging rock star's comeback album is entitled A to B. Even the two sections of this book, which might have been labeled "Part I" and "Part II" in another book, are here "A" and "B."
Another theme is the passage of time. The novel, as I mentioned earlier, moves back and forth freely along the timeline of characters' lives. Ranging from around 1980 to some point in the 2020's, we see the (often ravaging) effects of time.
One character states, "Time's a goon, right? Isn't that the expression?"
Another responds, "I've never heard that. 'Time's a goon?'"
"Would you disagree?"
The episodes that Egan spotlights are all, in some way, transformative for her characters. And let's talk about those characters. Reviewers like me will often extol "richly-drawn characters." It isn't until I read a novel like this--with insight so deep that you feel you know everything it's possible to know about these people based on brief snippets of their lives--that it really hits home what characterization is all about. Egan is THAT good.
Plus, there's the language. Her prose is truly a pleasure to read, no matter how absurd or at times unpleasant the subject matter. Egan's pointillistic novel roams from the New York music scene to an African safari; from the affluent suburbs to life on the edge in Naples, Italy; from a dictator's palace to our collective future. And in careening from place to place, time to time, and character to character in these linked lives, Jennifer Egan takes us from point A to point B.
In Jennifer's Egan's lively and inventive novel - A Visit From The Goon Squad - each character feels his or her mortality. Each is in a tenuous danse-a-deux with time and aging, otherwise known as "the goon."
Every chapter is told from a different character's point of view and it is no accident that the novel starts with Sasha - the assistant of music producer Bennie Salazar, one of the key focal points. Sasha has sticky fingers and is constantly pirating away meaningless objects to compose "the warped core of her life." These objects serve as talismans, placing her at arm's length from the love she wants.
And Bennie? A one-time band member and arrogant indie genius, he is now one step removed from the action, adding flakes of gold to his coffee to enhance his libido and bemoaning the state of digital technology. Like Sasha, he's at arm's length from a direct connection with love and life in general.
Bennie and Sasha will never know much about each other - even though they've worked together for decades - but the reader comes to know them through various stories. We get to know Lou, Bennie's charismatic, misbehaving, skirt-chasing mentor during a harrowing African safari; Dolly, the PR mogul who places her own daughter in harm's way; Jules, the ex-con journalist whose lunch with a Hollywood grade B actress goes terribly wrong; Ted Hollander, Sasha's art-loving uncle, who travels to Naples to find her. Each will add a little something to our understanding.
Yet none of their stories is told in chronological order, or even through flashbacks. Rather, time is revealed like the grooves of a record album, jumping from track to track in what appears to be no particular order. As each character takes his or her own moment in the spotlight, he or she is desperate for a second chance and to hold off the approaching goon. At one point, Dolly reflects, "Her deeper error had preceded all that: she's overlooked a seismic shift...Now and then (she) finds herself wondering what sort of event or convergence would define the new world in which she found herself, as Capote's party had, or Woodstock, or Malcolm Forbes's seventieth birthday, or the party for Talk Magazine. She had no idea."
The rich, lush, adventurous life that these characters once lived is being replaced by PowerPoints (one young character reveals her story through a 40-page PowerPoint presentation), paid "parrots" who create social media buzz, truncated emails, and digital technology. As Egan's characters "strut and fret" their last hours on the broader stage, the world of technology is making them increasingly irrelevant. When Alex - Sasha's would be beau whom we meet in the first chapter - tells Bennie, "I don't know what happened to me," Bennie's answer is, "You grew up, Alex...just like the rest of us."
on May 17, 2011
From the time I read the first review of A Visit from the Good Squad, I couldn't wait to get my hands on it myself. So I was thrilled when on a recent business trip I inadvertently packed my novel into my checked bag and had to buy a new book at the airport bookstore. However, it took all of my willpower to finish it. I usually love novels where disparate characters' paths cross over time. This novel was too much of that. Although I read it in just several days, I kept having to refer back to the earlier chapters - who was Alex again? Lulu? Scotty? I really disliked the way Egan, repeatedly, synopsized the rest of a character's life in a single, long paragraph. Midway through as I realized I wasn't enjoying the book, I told myself to not think of it as a novel, but instead think of it as a series of short stories. Didn't help. So many of the vignettes seemed pointless. I would describe Egan's writing as descriptive, but not necessarily rich. I didn't find myself vested in any of her characters. And I found the description of the future world, 202x, at the end very contrived. I so wanted to love this book. I purchased it believing it would be one of the best novels I read all year. I was really disappointed...in it, in myself.
on May 26, 2011
Awful and unbelievably pretentious. Supposedly a great novel - god knows why a number of newspaper literary critics thought so and it's unbelievable that it has won two major literary awards, which only makes the novel more depressing a reality compared with the reviews, since you are expecting something wonderful.
Egan's attempts to be wry, clever and 'with it' - in this instance, the focus is on the American music industry, and the trials, shenanigans and viewpoints of some individuals within it and its periphery - leave you feeling nothing at all for her characters (because they're all narcissistic, ego-inflated bores).
Her failed efforts at being clever amount to nothing more than sophistry, and two particular scenes/chapters highlighted by many reviewers to date as good are uninspired and tiresome. These involve a chapter in the form of a PowerPoint presentation, detailing in schematic/diagrammatic form a family matrix and its individuals' views and connections; and an article written in the style of David Foster Wallace, including - of course - footnotes and digressions galore (arguably an homage, more in truth a dull-witted effort, with none of the brilliance or ingenuity or riffing, clever tangents that Wallace so effortlessly produced in his fiction and journalism).
You keep on hoping it will get better, but sadly, miserably, it doesn't. Plodding stuff that will bore you to tears and, unless your proclivities include watching paint dry or wallpaper peel, I'd stay clear of this abysmal, contrived effort.
I have to say I was surprised, no make that stunned, when I saw this book had won a Pulitzer. I'd read it and found it mostly boring and forgettable. Everyone's taste in literature is different, and obviously, I don't have a Pulitzer vote so what do I know. I thought the pace was plodding and at the end, there was very little point to having read it.
And, the huge sections of PowerPoint slides posing as chapters? That comes off as a desperate ploy rather than genuine creativity. If you want some creative fiction that's edgy and exploratory, read Vonnegut. Let the powerpoint in the conference room.
I greatly enjoyed "A Visit From the Goon Squad." The interlocking stories that form the narrative are expertly plotted, and turning the page to the next chapter always produces a surprise, as you can't predict which character will next take his or her position as the center of attention. For the most part these are tales of the cities (New York, Los Angeles), but Egan's fine eye for detail is equally good in side trips to places like Naples, Westchester, or Palm Springs. This is a book you can curl up with in order to shudder sympathetically at the unstoppable depredations of "the goon" (time).
I did find the end of the book a bit disappointing in its turn toward a future dystopia in which everyone, even children, reserves eye contact for handheld electronic devices rather than other human beings. The PowerPoint "diary" chapter (ironically, it does not come out well on a Kindle) is likewise interesting but not compelling. This stuff is in no way as complicated as the human relationships in the rest of the book---and perhaps that's the point--but the power of Egan's stories seems to dissipate here. Don't let this criticism put you off the novel; it is well worth reading.
on April 17, 2011
Reading this book was a bit like reading a big Rolling Stone article. It has interesting characters, interesting structure and is a bit of pop culture chronicle from the era of punk until present day. The characters move in and out of cultural relevance.
It moves quickly, cuts back and forth between different times and places and switches characters rapidly. It's a bit like a music video in that regard. The characters are troubled and shallow yet Egan allows us into their deepest thoughts.
Several reviewers have mentioned the 70 page Powerpoint section of the book. It's written by a young girl in present day and is a very interesting way to present her version of the story.
The novel is not so much a coherent story as it is a series of soundbites from certain points in the lives of the characters. The music/cultural scene of the points in time told about are key parts of each story.
If you have nostalgia for the punk era of music then I think you'll be more likely to like this book. If you're an older reader then you might not relate so much to the scene.
I found the rapid cuts to be reasonable but some people found this awkward and confusing.
I liked the book but suspect that it's not for everyone.
on August 10, 2011
I enjoy the music scene. I am comfortable with books that are non traditional in their approach (I.e. chapter written in PowerPoint). I like character driven novels. But this book just didn't work for me on any level. Unlikeable and tired characters paired with forced quirkiness yielded a huge miss for me. Bummer as I had high hopes for this one.
on September 5, 2011
Having been involved in the underground rock music industry a few decades ago, I expected to really enjoy A Visit from the Goon Squad, with its references to the bands, drugs, and attitudes of that era. In this tapestry-like novel, Jennifer Egan checks in on a variety of characters who either work in the music industry or are musicians over the course of their lives, from dysfunctional young adulthood to compromised middle age. However I found it to be an overly contrived and rather glum book. I suppose it is a meditation on the passage of time and the difficulty of knowing other people, but I did not feel like Egan had anything particularly meaningful to say about those themes. I also thought that I was supposed to find the character of Sasha intriguing, as several characters in the book did, but she really had nothing particulary interesting going on in her head.
If you like novels with a dose of youthful angst, I would recommend The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon, and if you want to try a postmodern book with a lot of heart, I would recommend A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggars.