Posted by: Jeanie F | August 16, 2010

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

I’ll say right out front that I liked this book much better than I expected to. In case you haven’t read any of the reviews, this is a novel written in what appears to be an increasingly popular style: a collection of short stories or vignettes that can stand alone but are intended to be strung together to form a cohesive whole. The first of these that I remember reading was last year’s best seller and Pulitzer Prize winner, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. Apparently the accolades it received were enough to spur others on to use the style – or maybe it is the possibility of leveraging each piece individually as a short story for a magazine or story collection. Whatever it is, I next encountered it in Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists.  Now here it is again in A Visit from the Goon Squad.

Each of these books tell a different part of the overarching story from the point of view of different characters. On the surface, this should be an interesting construction, allowing the reader to get a wider picture of all the characters, and sometimes it is. I found it pretty effective in Olive Kitteridge, where the separate stories worked chronologically with Olive being the unifying piece of each. Every chapter, or story, stood alone, but we did see subtly developed aspects of Olive’s character and the small community where she lived. There was a cohesiveness that held it all together.

For me, there are several problems with Goon Squad: first, there is a large cast of characters that come in and out of the stories (which are numbered like chapters, but also named like stories) with no particular identifiable protagonist; next, the stories are somewhat randomly chronological, moving back and forth through time – one might be in the past, the next the future, and then into the  present. The stories ranged from the 1980s (I think) to 2021 (again, I think).  I found it difficult to really care about any of the characters because they appeared so haphazardly. Sometimes I’d spend the first several pages of the story just trying to remember what I had read about the characters in earlier stories. We did begin and end with a certain unity, but there was no real sense of building action to pull the reader along. This may be considered an innovative way to move a plot, but for me it was just disjointed. I ended up thinking that perhaps Egan couldn’t figure out a way to tie the narrative together.

However, as I said at the outset, I ultimately ended up liking this book. The unifying topic around which each story is built is some aspect of the music industry. There are some interesting events and characters, and Egan is a fine writer. There are some achingly poignant scenes and some quite funny parts. Much has already been written about the “PowerPoint” chapter, and it was a unique device that I enjoyed reading. The professional reviews have been (mostly) positive. I would never steer anyone away from reading this book, but I’d be pretty selective about to whom I recommended it.

Grade: B


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