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A Visit from the Goon Squad
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on October 31, 2017
This book was so much different than what I expected. I certainly wasn't expecting a narrative told in separate connected stories (think: Olive Kitteridge, The Tsar of Love and Techno), that's for sure. It's a bold approach, and it works.

The back cover of the book does a pretty apt job explaining it: it's about aging punk rock record executive Bennie and his younger troubled assistant, Sasha. It's indirectly about them, at least. After starting off with stories focused on Bennie and Sasha as the main characters, the other stories are about people who knew them throughout their lives. Bennie and Sasha serve as the connecting thread that binds everyone together.

This kind of narrative is gutsy because you have to make sure a) each story is interesting in its own right while b) holding the reader's attention with so many different characters and c) maintaining enough of a connection to the central characters that it doesn't feel random.

Here, Egan succeeds on all fronts. With captivating characters and intellectually stimulating prose, she kept me fully engaged and eager to read each succeeding story. She even plays around with form in an exhilarating way; one story (one of my favorites) is told as a sort of PowerPoint presentation from the perspective of a young girl.

I enjoyed this book immensely in spite of not connecting with it emotionally as much as I did intellectually.
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on May 16, 2015
I REALLY wanted to love this story. I thought I would. Typically, any book that involves the music biz with its myriad characters that come in every shade and style of humanity completely engrosses me. I love the irreverence, the wild ride of rock & roll mixed with the roller coaster that is life in the city, life growing up, life in the push and pull of families; heartache, mental illness, etc., so this should've knocked my socks off. I wanted it to, but it didn't.

Maybe it was my state of mind, I don't know, but there was not one emotional punch that landed with me. The characters were cleverly constructed, with lots of smart dialogue and angst-ridden plot points, but I was not moved by a one. And, frankly, even after repeatedly checking the book description to remind myself of who characters were and what they were supposed to be doing, their outlines somehow kept disappearing in the meandering narrative. I couldn't keep them straight, and their vignettes and individual chapters (often with bouncing time-lines and seemingly little connection) were indistinct and, for me, ultimately forgettable.

At times I felt the writer was working too hard to be clever: the Power Point display towards the top of the third act (or maybe the third of four acts?) was likely meant to convey some sort of meaning, but on an e-reader it was illegible and though a weblink was offered, even that suggestion was emblematic of the problem: the device took me out of the story; it was pages and pages and pages, and had I actually left my book to go look at this on a website, I'd've LITERALLY been taken out of the story! As it was, I skipped ahead, just wanting to grab onto some thread that kept me as connected as possible to the difficult-to-follow narrative.

For me it never got there. There were some interesting, well written sections, but it wasn't cohesive enough to really impel this reader forward to find out what was going to happen. I did get to the end...and then...it was over. That was about it. It left no mark.

All art is subjective, I understand that, and clearly this is a case where my perspective is somewhat out-of-sync: Egan has won enough awards for this book, including the Pulitzer Prize, to make clear that whatever has eluded me was less of a problem for others! So be it. She is a skilled writer, with a mastery of language, and this may just be one piece of her work that did not resonate. Perhaps another of her books will.
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on March 25, 2018
My review and rating - as for all my reports - reflects how I react to the book and should not be seen some sort of objective score. I did not love this book but it won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011 - so obviously the experts see it differently from me.

When I first picked out a couple of Jennifer Egan's novels to read I decided to start with Manhattan Beach because the structure of this one sounded daunting - if flashes back and forth from past to present to future focusing on different characters of a loosely bound group. Additionally the point of view switches between first, second, and third person. So, you have to be on your mental toes while reading - I wasn't.

The two main characters are Bernie - a music producer and Sasha - his one time assistant. The books starts with Sasha then jumps to other people who know her or Bernie. It is like a set of short stories rather than a novel - except the chapters all revolve around the two main characters and couldn't stand on their own. In other words - exactly like a book of short stories except they aren't. 

When one of the characters - who earlier tried to commit suicide - is high he points to the central point of the book:

"...and the question is, which one is really 'you', the one saying and doing whatever it is, or the one watching?" [Loc 2718]

As we work our way through the story, that is our job: which version of this person is the "real" version. But of course we change through our lives and we are the accumulation of all our history.

We read a couple of direct references to the goon squad; I'll leave it to you to read so I won't spoil it here.

This book really never grabbed me; as a result I'd put it aside for a few days and when I picked it up again the next chapter was in a different time with different characters and a different point of view. As a result I had to keep going back to remind myself who is/was who. My advice is dive in and swim through it quickly. That way it will likely hang together more may resonate better. The stories and characters themselves are interesting and the writing saves this from being a two star book - for me. The story about La Doll - Dolly's - fall, comeback, and retreat is especially good.
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on February 2, 2012
How should one choose what one reads? I am following an eclectic regime dictated by my old favorites and by recommendations from amazon friends (though they don't exist anymore). Sometimes I add an award winner, say a Man Booker or a Pulitzer or a National Book Award winner. That approach is not always rewarding.

Case in point is this 2011 Pulitzer winner. Interesting, amusing, but in a flat way. No really interesting people in it. No really great language either. Hardly a novel, more like stories linked by their cast. Some in NY, some post 9-11, some elsewhere at other times, some in different styles. The main characters of each story appear as supporting cast in other chapters. Good overall plotting can't replace interesting contents though. This is competent but meaningless. While one might enjoy reading it, one will surely not remember a word of it next year. And the stories, even if they deal with tragic things, they are still fluff.
But if I don't read it, how do I know it is fluff? The book has just been published in Germany and has received a rave review from Die Zeit. Hm.

What is it about? Mostly about pop music and pop musicians, and the related subculture.

We learn about a kleptomaniac, her shrink sessions, and a particular adventure when her one night stand inadvertently nearly makes her get caught for lifting a wallet from a woman in the ladies' washroom.

Or about a manager of a record label who suffers from a loss of sex drive, who wonders if that loss is not a good thing. He also has a need to divulge, and a penchant for betrayal bonding when out with his son.
Or about a punk band in SF in the late 70s, groupies included. The usual about drugs and teenage sex and so on.
About an LA record producer on safari in Africa with kids and girlfriend. The usual about messy families. Kids grow up, they fail or succeed, they kill themselves or become addicts or both, they visit their dying elders in hospital or not...
Or about a PR agent who represents a foreign dictator, trying to brighten his image, but her plans seem to take a bad turn.
Or about a celebrity reporter who is overwhelmed by his attractive interviewee and tries to rape her.
And some more.
And then the insult of chapter 12: it is told in PowerPoint charts. I refuse to read this as a matter of principle. I have to use this silly software all the time. I do think, actually, that it makes us stupider by making work easier.

The first really interesting chapter comes half into the novel, the 7th of 13, when the not quite convincingly Caucasian record label manager moves to an upper class NY suburb and gets implicitly suspected as terror network operative. Is that enough for raving? Maybe for a move from 3 to 4 stars. There are other post 9-11 observations strewn over various chapters, which do add some substance to pure pop. I get the impression that this is a smart writer who could have done better. Not a stupid book, but a limited choice of subject. And I will not need a whole year to forget it.
3 and a half stars.
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on March 13, 2018
I was not thrilled with this book. The none of the characters were likeable or particularly interesting and the non-linear narrative was hard to follow. Part of the story was presented as a PowerPoint format which did not display well on my Kindle and I finally just skipped most of that chapter. The format was innovative, however, so I gave an extra star for that, even though I did not find the innovation to be successful, in this case. I have read other books with non-linear formats and found them fascinating; this just wasn't one of them. I am astounded that it won a Pulitzer Prize. I just didn't think it was particularly good.
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on December 15, 2017
As others have said, I am tired of being sucked in by “Pulitzer winner” and other now dubious-value awards. And, another book about miserable people in some sub-culture who wallow around in their misery, changing little, if at all. I read the article in New Yorker about Ms, Egan which prompted me to try this earlier book. Mistake. It gets the extra star because, technically, it is well written.
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on March 10, 2018
I bought this book after reading a review in The New Yorker. It was a positive review, so I decided to give her earlier works a try. I am very disappointed. I knew it was supposed to be kind of hip, but in fact it felt clumsy and self-conscious. I realize the book sold well, but I'm sure I won't be reading any of her more recent works.
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on July 17, 2017
Very touching, so completely relatable, and lovely. It's been a long time since a fictional story made me feel something as important. I adore American culture, and who doesn't love to fondly look back at their life and remember certain songs, bands, music in general, fashions, and smells of your youth, even the difficult times.
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on August 30, 2017
An ambitious work...... I didn't care much about the many characters or the scene (rock) but one or two chapters were standouts. Love the title.
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on April 20, 2018
Egan's novel had in it everything I want from a great book. She has vibrant, colorful characters like Bennie, Sasha, and Kitty. She also creates such emotional depth without trying to be poignant or sappy. Also, with such a wide variety of characters, it is a danger to have many characters left feeling one-dimensional, simply because not enough time can be spent discussing the complexities of their lives. Egan manages to make these characters feel so incredibly real and human in such a short space of the novel. Almost every character was someone I was rooting for by the end of the novel.

This book is also fun to read. With many works of literature, I wouldn't say that they're fun to read, but rather satisfying to read or rewarding to have read. However, A Visit from the Goon Squad is just plain enjoyable. It is funny, witty, and intriguing. Egan maintains a balance of hope and despair in the novel, never straying too far in one direction, still allowing readers to enjoy the experience the whole way through.

New York City seems to be a necessary backdrop to most of the story, and I enjoyed how Egan incorporated the setting of New York into her scenes and characters' lives. All the scenes set in New York I found to be almost perfect. However, when so much of the book takes place in New York, it is hard to incorporate other settings in a way that feels balanced. The scenes that were set in other locations, especially the "Safari" chapter and the "Selling the General" chapter, felt wrong to me. These locations felt imagined, lacked detail, and didn't mesh well with the characters who we had come to know so well as being rooted in New York. I had an incredible amount of trouble imagining Kitty and Lulu in the Middle East and acting as they did in the novel. Despite these few chapters, however, I have few other complaints about Egan's excellent novel.
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