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A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Remember back in the day (February) when I said that there’s nothing that makes me more nervous, as a reader, than the words “novel in short stories”? I do! It was in this review I did of Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists. I went on to say that The Imperfectionists is the exception to this; I called it “the most superb example of a novel in short stories that I have ever read.” You know what doesn’t fit that description? A Visit from the Goon Squad.

Now, I’m not saying that A Visit from the Goon Squad is a bad book. It’s not. It’s really well written and ambitious and quirky. I don’t think it deserved the Pulitzer Prize, but I’m not Professor Pulitzer Prize, so what do I know? As for plot (insofar as there is a discernable one), A Visit from the Goon Squad is about a recurring cast of characters who are involved in the music business, either through their own musical ambitions, or those of their friends and family. The stories cover a lengthy span of time, from the emerging punk scene of the late seventies/early eighties to a somewhat dystopian future.

A Visit from the Goon Squad contains a lot of the pitfalls that The Imperfectionists managed to avoid. It, too, is a collection of interconnected short stories, but I found, as I made my way through Goon Squad, that I would rather not know anything about a lot of the characters. Each of the stories is told slightly differently—some are in the third person, some are in the first person, one is in second person, one is in the form of a PowerPoint, some are past tense, some are present tense, and many of them are various degrees of not that interesting. This is probably personal, but still.

Every time I think of this book, I think of a Saturday afternoon a few weeks ago in which I had brunch in Brooklyn and then walked home across the Williamsburg Bridge. The clouds in the sky were dark and it had started drizzling as I descended the Manhattan side of the bridge onto Delancey Street, then suddenly the sun came out. Which sounds great, but actually it was already humid, the sun made it uncomfortably hot, and if you’ve ever been there you know that the Lower East Side looks better in darkness and shadow. Direct sunlight just illuminates the filth and ugliness of the neighborhood. I’m sure one of the reasons I think of that afternoon when I think of Goon Squad is because I was reading it at the time, but also it’s sort of how the act of reading A Visit from the Goon Squad actually felt. Some of the stories were a cool, pleasant, albeit slightly ominous walk across the Williamsburg Bridge, and some of them (LOTS of them) were hot, starkly lit Delancey Street, smelling of Burger King and human urine.

Most likely that made zero sense (and was pretty gross). I guess what I’m trying to say is that, while most of the stories were very accomplished (I really, really hated the last one), it was all scumbags and unrequited love and snorting cocaine and people missing teeth and kleptomania and stuff. There seemed to be very little that was redeemable about the people in Egan’s stories. And while the characters were connected through time and space and many of them did recur throughout the book, there didn’t seem to be anything tying them all together, other than the devastating effects of the unrelenting passage of time (the “goon” of the title). Which, I’m sorry, isn’t enough!

One of the things I loved most about The Imperfectionists was that the paper was the hub of the story and all roads led back to it in the end. Goon Squad had no such hub, or even a central narrative, and I finished the novel with no idea what Egan was trying to communicate to me (it doesn’t help that the last story/chapter is so terrible that I ended up feeling resentful of the book overall). Maybe asking, “But what does it mean?” is as fruitless as yelling at the moon for being out during the day, but I think it’s an important thing to consider. “Time makes fools of us all”? Is that it? Well, no offense, Ms. Egan, but duh. What else? What do we do with the time that we have? How do we live? Etc. I don’t think I’m the only person who’s having trouble sussing that out from this story. The New York Times review is sort of scattered, though fawning.

I had a professor in graduate school, probably the most brilliant professor I’ve had or ever will have, who would always counter any argument you made with a big “SO WHAT?” I guess that’s my question here: SO WHAT? Why should I care? What makes these people worth reading about? What’s important about this story? I don’t have the answer to that. I wonder if the author does.

*A note about the format: I bought the newly released paperback (repackaged cover above), because when given the choice I always buy the paperback, and was disappointed to find that it's not very sturdy. It's got an extremely flimsy step back that weakens the physical structure of the book, because the paper stock is heavy. Nobody else cares about this but me, I'm sure, but it annoyed me a lot.

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  1. Blogger chris | 4:15 PM |  

    This saddens me. I read about the PowerPoint gimmick and I'm a sucker for stories that use music fads as their backdrops, so I was excited to check this out this summer. I still may just to see if I agree with you!

    As for the short stories making up a novel thing, are you a fan of Jesus' Son? (One of my totes faves.)

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