A Visit From The Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan

>> Thursday, October 13, 2011

TITLE: A Visit From The Goon Squad
AUTHOR: Jennifer Egan

PAGES: 352

SETTING: Contemporary, variety of locations
TYPE: Fiction

Bennie is an aging former punk rocker and record executive. Sasha is the passionate, troubled young woman he employs. Here Jennifer Egan brilliantly reveals their pasts, along with the inner lives of a host of other characters whose paths intersect with theirs. With music pulsing on every page, A Visit from the Goon Squad is a startling, exhilarating novel of self-destruction and redemption.
Yet another book read for my book club, and yet another one that I loved, and would never have picked up otherwise. Yay for book clubs!

A Visit From The Goon Squad seems to be more a collection of related stories than a novel. I can't decide which it is, actually, as these stories are not independent, and there's an overall theme that emerges as we move back and forth in time, and all over the world, picking up the stories of characters whom we'd met in previous chapters, sometimes in the centre of things, more often just on the edge of vision.

This was a structure that quite divided my book club. Some people hated it. They felt cheated when they finished a chapter and knew that they wouldn't find out more about that character, other than by way of them being part of the supporting cast in another character's story. Me, I never felt cheated. Every single chapter, I felt Egan closed it at the perfect point, a point where I was still interested in the character, but where I'd had enough to make the story perfectly satisfying.

It's not just the structure that's different and interesting, Egan is also quite innovative with her narrative choices. There are plenty of traditionally narrated chapters (albeit each with their own very individual voices), but there are also some quite wild ones, such as one that is basically a powerpoint presentation. The latter actually turned out to be one of my favourites, doubtful as I was before I started it. It tells a proper story, complete with feelings and great characterisation. Just that chapter is worth the price of the book.

Other favourites included the chapter about the PR agent who has lately almost accidentally become specialised in rehabilitating brutal dictators (loved the fuzzy hat detail), the final, futuristic episode which felt eerily possible, or the celebrity interview with jaw-dropping footnotes.

I should also say, the reason why I would probably never have picked this up on my own is that all I'd read about it indicated that this was a book where the music business was a big part of the plot. I have absolutely no interest in the music business, and just as little patience for the self-indulgent characters that seem to populate it. But while several of the characters are involved, centrally or peripherally, in that business, this is not what the book is about, and all the characters are interesting enough that I wanted to read about them. I especially appreciated the several moments of complete truth that we got, the sort of writing that forces you to acknowledge feelings that are not particularly pretty, but which really are there. For instance, I'm thinking of Bennie's collection of shameful moments that he can't help thinking about again, and can't keep picking at, like a scab.



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