A Visit From The Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan

Purchased from Chapters.ca

Let’s start with a disclaimer — this novel made a number of 2010 top ten lists. Just for a start, the NY Times in the conventional world; the Mookse and the Gripes in the blogging world. I would have overlooked it but for those plaudits; I read it because of them and, while I am not disappointed that I did, for me it did not measure up to that standard. That may say more about me as a reader than anything else (am I again showing my age?), so read on and see if you have a different opinion. I do have the feeling that I may be out of step.

A Visit From The Goon Squad is a wandering, impressionistic look at a large group of characters (with the music industry as a central unifying theme) as they live through the latter few decades of the last century and the first couple of this one. The lives and experiences of the cast overlap each other, they have their own problems, they have sex occasionally or often (maybe marry, maybe split), they are mainly interested in themselves and they are preoccupied with what these episodes mean to their own insular life — that in particular relates to the era.

Some experience success, even if it is clouded. Consider music producer Bennie Salazar:

The shame memories began early that day for Bennie, during the morning meeting, while he listened to one of his senior executives make a case for pulling the plug on Stop/Go, a sister band Bennie had signed to a three-record deal a couple years back. Then, Stop/Go had seemed like an excellent bet; the sisters were young and adorable, their sound was gritty and simple and catchy (“Cyndi Lauper meets Chrissie Hynde” had been Bennie’s line early on), with a big gulping bass and some fun percussion — he recalled a cowbell. Plus they’d written decent songs; hell, they’d sold twelve thousand CDs off the stage before Bennie ever heard them play. A little time to develop potential singles, some clever marketing, and a decent video could put them over the top.

That quote from early on the novel has promise, but it is promise that is never realized. In the early pages of the book, I could find a dozen similar examples that say this could be a great book (and it obviously was for some) but for me it was an exercise in promised not realized. As Egan unfolds the many elements of her story, we meet many potentially interesting people but in the final analysis they remain just that — unrealized potential.

Here is the introduction to another one, Rhea, a teenage groupie, a generation younger than Bennie:

Nineteen eighty is almost here, thank God. The hippies are getting old, they blew their brains on acid and now they’re begging on street corners all over San Francisco. Their hair is tangled and their bare feet are thick and gray as shoes. We’re sick of them.

At school, we spend every free minute in the Pit. It’s not a pit in the strictly speaking sense; it’s a strip of pavement above the playing fields. We inherited it from last year’s Pitters who graduated, but still we get nervous walking in if other Pitters are already there: Tatum, who wears a different color Danskin every day, or Wayne, who grows sinsemilla in his actual closet, or Boomer, who’s always hugging everyone since his family did EST. I’m nervous walking in unless Jocelyn is already there, or (for her) me. We stand in for each other.

It is no spoiler to say that these characters will grow up (or age). And that that is the process that Egan’s novel is mainly about. They have their triumphs, challenges and disasters — so many, that the circumstances surrounding those action developments swamp what is good about the book. I don’t even have a Facebook page but, that caveat aside, this novel strikes me as the book equivalent of wandering from one Facebook page to another of a group of friends, following the “lives” of an overlapping group of characters. Lots of photos, many impressions, not much story.

Egan actually does go there, or at least a version of there. On page 176, she begins a 75-page printed, Power Point presentation which is related to one of the themes of the book. On the one hand, that seems “hip” — gee, someone put a Power Point presentation into a book. On the other, it is “totally gross”: anyone who has ever done a Power Point presentation in their life (is there anyone who has not?) knows that 20 slides is the absolute maximum — do you want the paying audience to fall asleep? Interesting trick, author, badly done.

For me, A Visit From The Goon Squad was a continuing exercise in frustration. It always offered the promise of going somewhere (and I did finish it), but the problem was it never did — in any of its numerous plot streams. Given the positive response from other sources, that impression may represent a failing on my part. Perhaps, this is what the fiction of today and the near tomorrow is meant to look like. I’ll keep up with it, if that is the case, but if it is, I am sure glad that I have a library full of classics to fall back on.

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39 Responses to “A Visit From The Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan”

  1. Kerry Says:

    I have been wary of this one. A little voice has been whispering that this is not the one for me. I had been about to snag a copy, but your reaction has re-awakened that little voice. I will be interested to see the book’s fans’ reactions to your comments.

    Like you, I put the upmost faith in Trevor, but, to my discredit, my taste does not perfectly match his. I’ll go re-read his review to quiet the voice a bit. But my inclination at this moment is to take a pass. I know. I’m a coward.

    The ToB may fortify my courage, if the folks with the Rooster would ever announce the shortlist.

  2. Donovan Richards Says:

    While I haven’t read this book, it has certainly been on my radar. Would you attribute not liking the book to its style (multiple many stories) or the content in those stories?

    Put differently, this book seems to be similar to Rachman’s ‘The Imperfectionists’ and McCan’s ‘Let the Great World Spin’. I enjoyed both of those books because the characters built a setting. Is Egan’s work similar?

  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kerry: I will be interested to see if this makes the ToB shortlist. I actually hope it does, as much as I find the novel lacking. I would like to see arguments from those (several decades) younger who find more it than I do. And if you are feeling discouraged, probably you should back off this one. It is not bad at all — indeed, it is quite good — but it has acquired a reputation that it simply does not deserve.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Donovan: Thank you for an excellent question, that allows me to qualify my review. My gripe would be that style overtook content, but let that gripe pass.

    From my point of view, this book is much more like McCann (and compares favorably to it) than Rachman. There is not a lot of humor to it, albeit there is quite a bit of irony. And while Rachman plays with character sketches, Egan has a broader objective. Rather, like McCann, I would say the author is trying to expose some of the underlying forces that have played out in American society in the last few years.

    Despite my concerns with this book, if you liked McCann’s Let The Great World Spin (and I did), I would recommend this book. It is a different take, from a different perspective, on the same age. I don’t think she succeeds, but that is a purely personal judgment.

  5. Guy Savage Says:

    Kevin: This one was up for grabs at Mostly Fiction and I passed in spite of my attraction to books about the music biz. I read a number of reviews and tried to read under the gloss.

    I suspect my reaction would have been like yours.

    For anyone else, who like me, enjoys books that centre of the music industry, I HIGHLY recommend The Alternate Hero by Tim Thornton and Evening’s Empire by Bill Flanagan

  6. Trevor Says:

    After your recommendation led me to such a fine read in No Tomorrow;, I wish I could have returned the favor here, Kevin. I wonder how much the hype ruined it for you. I read it before it came out, so I had no expectations. The only reason I read it was because I liked one of the two excerpts published in The New Yorker (and didn’t like the other, though I found it worked well in the book itself). Where you kept expecting (or hoping based on its hype), I kept expecting it to fizzle and die. I kept expecting the gimmicks to show themselves as mere gimmicks, but that never happened to me. Consequently, that tree from your metaphor started to fall on the right side for me, and each good thing (and I contend there are many many good things) served to keep it falling in that direction.

    Today I had my own hype ruin a book for me, too. After Karen Russell’s excellent “The Dredgeman’s Revelation” was published in The New Yorker I couldn’t wait for her new novel, of which that story is a center. Sadly, the book never matches that small section, which still had me enthralled even though it came after 100 rather dry pages. I kept hoping it would get better, and it did, but not as good as I’d hoped. Now I’m anxious to see what others who weren’t expecting much feel about it.

    A rare book that isn’t destroyed by hype (though, again, No Tomorrow certainly exceeded anything I was hoping for).

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trevor: I don’t think it was a case of hype or even unrealistic expectations on my part. Rather, I think it was a case that I found the novel shallow — opening up some interesting avenues and then not exploring them. And I also agree that other readers may find that to be a strength, not a weakness, in the book.

  8. Patrick Murtha Says:

    I had a very similar reaction to reading Joshua Ferris’s “Then We Came to the End”: It started promisingly, drifted, went on way too long, and ultimately did not seem to amount to much (although I’ll admit it has a lovely ending). I could not reconcile the high praise the book received with my assessment of it as, at best, a middling effort.

    I read a lot of classic novels, and probably that makes me a somewhat unforgiving reader of contemporary fiction. If I am reading your book side-by-side with a novel by Dostoevsky or Dickens, yours had better be pretty good, or it is going to look *very* bad! I never used to allow myself to leave a book uncompleted, but after a few experiences like the Ferris novel, I have decided to extend myself that permission if a book has not engaged me after 75 pages or so. I recently gave up on Chang-Rae Lee’s “Native Speaker,” for example, because I was finding it dreary and aimless, and, again, because it fell far short of living up to its extreme hype.

    By the way, I enjoy and value your blog quite a lot.

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Patrick: The comparison with Ferris is quite appropriate — I agree that both novels had promise and then simply wandered. I don’t think I expect every contemporary novel to compare with Dostoevsky or Dickens but I do get frustrated when a good idea goes awry.

    And thank you for the kind comment about the blog.

  10. susanonthesoapbox Says:

    Kevin, I loved the comment about the 75 page Powerpoint gimmick. Speaking from personal experience, even 20 slides is 10 too many. I never cease to be amazed at the modern day executive’s ability to bet the company on the strength of 4 bullets and some incomprehensible biz-speak. Your blog demonstrates so much more thought and analysis. And it’s delightful to read as well.

  11. Lee Monks Says:

    Well, I thought it was tremendous, but that’s what makes the blogworld so interesting. I read Trevor’s fine review of A Visit…and immediately ordered a copy: I had a sense I would love it and promptly did. On questions of prescience or zeitgeist, it does feel like ‘now’ to me – but that’s such a nebulous matter in any case. I suppose it’s better for me to say that it felt fresh and invigorating. I love Coupland, and this felt like one of his better pieces of work. Nor did I think this was particularly shallow. Ah well.

  12. John Self Says:

    For my part, having recently taken delivery of a UK proof of this book, and goggled in dismay at the tiny typeface, I sighed in relief when I saw that 75 pages of the book are in PowerPoint slide form. Speeds up the reading process beautifully.

  13. LeeMonks Says:

    Indeed, but the book flew by for me in any case. And it’s such a well-implemented aspect of the book as well – I’d forgotten to mention it.

  14. mary gilbert Says:

    I’ve read Jennifer Egan’s Look at Me about, among other things, a model whose face is damaged in an accident. It was very readable in parts but halfway through went off at an unexpected tangent with another story about a sexually exploited girl and an East European immigrant. It ended rather unsatisfactorily if I remember rightly and I’d almost forgotten about it until Kevin’s review.
    I’m afraid what puts me off reading her latest book is my personal prejudice against reading stories about imaginary pop groups. Illogical I know as I’m more than happy to read about imaginary people in general but I just can’t buy it when it comes to the music scene.

  15. Lee Monks Says:

    Oh no, Mary – surely that didn’t mean you avoided The Crying Of Lot 49?!

    • mary gilbert Says:

      Pynchon is one American writer I’ve never had any success with though Gravity’s Rainbow sat on the shelf for many years and because of its size acted as a useful bookend….

  16. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lee: Well, I don’t like Coupland either so I would say we may be looking at a trend. And I think there is ample evidence that a number of very good readers (including you) don’t share my negative opinion of this book.

    Susan, John: I’ll admit I was rather happy when the Power Point section arrived — the prose had been fairly boring at that point and the break was welcome. Still — 75 slides raise serious credibility issues.

    Mary: The music angle was one that interested me but I don’t think she delivered. Your comment about the unexpected tangent in Look at Me is also reflected in this book — just when a story line got interesting, Egan would move on to another one.

  17. Tom C Says:

    Kevin – another excellent review as always. I don’t think this would appeal to me, and having read Joshua Ferris and other similar authors I do not take to this type of book – perhaps I am getting old.

    Thanks for visiting my blog. Unfortunately the desire to pour words into the computer has left me – hopefully temporarily. I had a similar break last autumn and fear that another lull so soon after the last suggests that I have lost inspiration at least at the moment.

  18. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tom: We appreciate your thoughts so I hope the break is temporary. And I certainly welcome your comments.

  19. John Self Says:

    Well, I am going to be an outlier on this one, I fear, by observing that I am giving up on it around the page 50 mark (somewhere in chapter 4) and with not the slightest regret. I have not just not loved, but have actively disliked, most of what I have read so far.

    The word that keeps coming to me in describing the first chapters is facile. There something tinkertoy-literature-lite about the way Egan introduces her characters with their neatly hinted-at pasts and quirks (Sasha’s kleptomania, Bennie’s contact visits with his son) and elbows the reader with ‘subtle’ pointers (Rhea’s “Then she goes, There’s too much, and I feel like something is ending, right at that minute”).

    And unfortunately, like Mary, I found myself with the greatest resistance to the fictional music world in the book. Stop/Go? The Flaming Dildos? Has there ever been a music industry novel that didn’t make the reader’s toes curl in embarrassment at the author’s attempts to fabricate coolness?

    So, in short, with all the respect that I have for Trevor and Lee (and Ron Charles, who also loved the book in the Washington Post, if I recall), this one is not for me at all.

  20. LeeMonks Says:

    Another fascinating twist…woe betide anyone that would ever attempt to bet on any of this!

  21. KevinfromCanada Says:

    John: Aah, this novel is very susceptible to the tilting tree effect — once one of the author’s tricks annoys you, the others start jumping off the page with increasing regularity.

  22. Trevor Says:

    Don’t tell me my tastes are lining up more with the newspaper book reviewer world than my friends in the blogging world!

    Though I also have respect for Ron Charles, particularly when he dressed in black and put on makeup to review this book — perhaps you need to go there, Kevin and John :).

  23. Trevor Says:

    By the way, I should mention that a lot of the things that bothered you two in A Visit from the Goon Squad bothered me in Egan’s The Keep. For whatever reason, A Visit from the Goon Squad worked wonderfully for me.

  24. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trevor: Well, there are different books for different tastes. After all, I really enjoyed Steve Martin’s An Objecty of Beauty. And you have Lee’s endorsement of Goon Squad on your side as well.

  25. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Stop/Go to me is a very credible band name. But then I’m looking forward to the third Go! Team album. The description of them in that opening para worked for me too.

    That aside, 75 pages of powerpoint? I think not. I once had to give a 50 page powerpoint presentation (not my choice I assure you). I’m reasonably good at presentations, but by page 25 or so it was clear the audience was lost and bored. 20 as Kevin says is as high as you’d ever want to go. Most of my own presentations come in a lot lower. Besides, it sounds like a gimmick and the review doesn’t assure me to the contrary.

    I’m not sure how much John is an outlier here though. After all, it’s not a chorus of praise disagreeing with Kevin exactly. That said, it’s interesting to see a book that divides opinion as this has (Trevor likes it I notice). That suggests an author who is at least trying.

  26. Trevor Says:

    Besides, it sounds like a gimmick and the review doesn’t assume me to the contrary.

    Mine does — explicitly!

    I’m sure the book might still look like a stylistic, structurally ambitious flight of fancy. I assure you that Egan pulls it off. The ambition, the variety — they never cloud over the intimate settings she’s created where we can spend quiet moments with these compelling individuals.

    Obviously, my assurance is couched in pages of fine-print disclaimers scattered on my blog.

    I did really enjoy this book, Max. At the beginning of each and every chapter, I had my doubts, but it all worked for me, even the PowerPoint chapter. It should be noted that this is not a business or legal or even educational PowerPoint presentation. Those are boring, but for reasons we don’t need to go into. In this book, the presentation is the method a young child uses to show us relations in her family, and the form works because one of Egan’s goals is to explore how technology mediates how we express ourselves. It didn’t work for Kevin or John for valid reasons, but — despite it being gimmicky — it did work for me.

    I concur with Ron Charles when he opened his review:

    If Jennifer Egan is our reward for living through the self-conscious gimmicks and ironic claptrap of postmodernism, then it was all worthwhile.

  27. KevinfromCanada Says:

    We should note that both the National Book Critics Circle and Tournament of Books have included this novel on their shortlist, so I think I would have to admit that at this stage my opinion looks like the contrarian one.

    My theory is that reaction to the novel is dependent on how the individual reader reacts initially to some of Egan’s more “offbeat” approaches (I don’t want to call them “experimental”, because the novel for the most part is conventionally structured). In a way, it is like satire — if you it hits a responsive chord originally, each succeeding example tends to become more attractive. If the first use clangs, it just gets more and more annoying. The result is that when Ron Charles uses “self-conscious gimmicks and ironic claptrap”, I find it applicable to this novel, obviously not his intention. On the other hand, I can actually understand how he reached his conclusion.

    Trevor’s also right that the Power Point is not the typicable business proposition. Despite that, 20 pages would style have been more than enough.

  28. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I have your review open in another window Trevor, and will read it shortly. I’m looking forward to the counter-perspective.

  29. RickP Says:

    I think I’ll read this in the near future. it just won NBCC and I noticed it’s shortlisted for PEN/Faulkner. Also shortlisted for PEN/Faulkner is Lord of Misrule. I guess I don’t need to ask which book Kevin would choose.

  30. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Rick: No you don’t. Although that I have to admit my experience with horse-racing so influenced my response to Lord of Misrule.

  31. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I just read the other day the recent LRB review of this, which praised it very highly. Have you read it Kevin? It’s an interesting counterpoint.

  32. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I subscribe to the LRB but am a few issues behind — will come back with thoughts when I have read the piece. Goon Squad does provoke divergent reactions (and those who love it seem to really love it). It just won the on-line Tournament of Books; it also just failed to make the Orange Prize shortlist. The last 12 months seem to have produced an unusual number of novels that do that. I would characterize both Room and The Finkler Question in similar terms, although emphasizing it is the reaction to the books that is similar, not the novels themselves.

  33. Lisa Hill Says:

    *chuckle* My favourite bloggers in disagreement over this book, and a most entertaining conversation in comments too – as I said at Mookse, I don’t think I’m going to like this, but I’m going to have to read it. Well, at least up to page 50…

  34. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lisa: *Trying to be as even-handed as possible* The novel is best approached as a linked collection of stories or incidents, the result being a collage that is the finished work. Much like cubist art (which I referenced in my review of the latest Cynthia Ozick, but I think the comparison also applies here) some people think the result is brilliant and others find it a gimmick. I had no problems with the structure, but I didn’t find any of the characters very engaging. I have to admit that my response is proving to be very much a minority one, at least in the literary prize community.

  35. Lisa Hill Says:

    *hearty laughter* Well, I’m often in that minority myself, and increasingly as generational change hits the LitPrize judging panels, I’m finding their tastes bizarre. What makes this one different – and difficult – is that *Mookse* likes it. If it were anyone else but him, I’d be dismissing this title without further ado.

  36. Colette Jones Says:

    I’m with Trevor on this one – I think it’s excellent. The powerpoint section is communication from a 12 year old girl about her family. It worked a treat in my opinion, and 20 slides would not have been enough to tell the story.

  37. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Colette: In addition to you and Trevor, there is also the Pulitzer jury and the Tournament of Books gang. It is not the first time that I have marched to a different drummer.

  38. Liz from Literary Masters Says:

    I have been wanting to read this book, largely due to all the mixed reviews I’ve read. Now I’ve done so, and I have to say–I LOVED it. I thought it was brilliant from end to end, and I’m choosing it for my Literary Masters book groups to read this fall. Interestingly, Kevin, you state above that you’d recommend this to someone who liked Let the Great World Spin; that novel was one of my groups’ favorites last year.

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