A Visit from the Goon Squad
"Jennifer Egan’s spellbinding novel circles the lives of Bennie Salazar, an aging former punk rocker and record executive, and Sasha, the passionate, troubled young woman he employs. Although Bennie and Sasha never discover each other’s pasts, the reader does, in intimate detail, along with the secret lives of a host of other characters whose paths intersect with theirs, over many years, in locales as varied as New York, San Francisco, Naples, and Africa."
How do you describe A Visit from the Goon Squad? It’s pretty hard. It’s certainly not a straight forward narrative, each chapter deals with a separate character and each contains a different writing style. All the characters are connected, playing roles, some small some large, in the lives of the others.
Of them all, I suppose you could say that the characters introduced in the first two chapters, kleptomaniac Sasha and he music company exec boss Bernie are the main characters. They’re certainly the characters who have the widest circle of acquaintances and make the most appearances, but both still only have one chapter to themselves, and they’re both pretty short chapters, so…can you really say they’re the main characters?
I’ve seen Goon Squad called “a short story collection disguised as a novel”, and, while the comment was used negatively, it does sum it up quite neatly. It’s a collection of short stories that, when taken as a whole, weave a complex and interesting network, a sprawling narrative that documents the roles we all play, whether knowingly or not, in the lives of countless others around us.
It’s a wonderful book, packed with memorable characters and terrific dialogue. The various writing styles that Egan uses to differentiate the characters could come off as a gimmick but instead add an extra dimension to the story and are highly enjoyable. Chapters can be dialogue heavy, description heavy, told in past or present tense, first, third or even second person. My personal favourite is a chapter close to the end which is told as a powerpoint presentation that the character uses instead of a diary. It allows Egan to break family dynamics down into bar graphs and Venn diagrams. It’s interesting to read and very unique. I loved it.
The book isn’t without its flaws, there will be chapters, characters and styles that you don’t enjoy as much as others and, although each character getting one chapter to themselves is an interesting idea, there are some that you wish would get more time than others. Certain characters are interesting and enjoyable enough that you want a whole book dedicated to them, so having them arrive and leave within thirty pages can be a little annoying, while there are over arcing themes dealing with life in the music industry or life as an outsider, the fact that none of the individual narratives ever reach a full conclusion can be frustrating.
Annoying as these flaws are however, they’re worth sitting through to get to the good stuff because when this book gets it right, it’s fantastic. Brief as their time on the page is, many of these characters will stay with you long after you put the book down. You’ll find yourself constantly thinking back to them, piecing together the timeline and the web of connections tying everyone together.
Jennifer Egan has managed to craft a unique experience, something really special. It may not be perfect, but it’s pretty darn close.
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