Fat Books & Thin Women


Review: Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad

Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer-winning collection of linked short stories, A Visit from the Goon Squad, is an extraordinary book, the sort that despite its occasional stretching of boundaries and definitions of what fiction is and can be (a powerpoint presentation, anyone?) is ultimately satisfying for Egan’s sheer good storytelling.

Goon Squad is full of gaps, spaces between stories that go unexplored until a hundred pages later, years of characters’ lives that are never explained or are only obliquely hinted at. It’s a powerful work for the ways Egan involves the reader in the text; details that would in other works be major plot points are here only gestured at, pushing the reader to do the work of filling in the lives that Egan has plotted for us. Following Sasha, who is at various times presented as wayward youth, assistant to the record producer Benny Salazer, a woman with more skill for picking up parts of other people’s lives than for understanding her own, and wife and mother. Sasha’s life doesn’t appear chronologically, though, and neither do those her story intersects with; Benny appears at one point through his wife’s eyes, as she struggles to fit in with the country club community they are trying to become a part of, at another time peripherally as a young man meeting the producer who will be his mentor, at another as his career falters and he’s taken to drinking hundreds of dollars of gold leaf with his coffee in the hopes it will return to him some of his former virility. Benny’s mentor, Lou, is a dying man being visited by the middle-aged women he once entertained as teens, standing by his bed and “unsure what to do” because they knew “him from a time when there was no such thing as normal people dying” (85), a success with a good car and something appealing to offer a teenaged hitchhiker, a father on a safari failing, in some way, to connect with his children, and in another falling into the life they push him to lead.

By showing her characters in glimpses, by having them appear only for a second in the story of another life and later in a light different than we ever could have imagined them, Egan illuminates the whole of a life, of many lives. One of her characters, the possibly off-his-rocker reporter Jules Jones, writes of the movie star Kitty Jackson that he feels “surrounded by her, blundering inside her life without having moved” (177), and that’s how the reader of this novel (or collection of stories, whatever you want to call it) should feel. Egan arrays these lives around her readers, and there’s a wonderful freedom in the way she allows her reader to blunder into the lives of her characters; there may be gaps, there may be unknowns, there may be times when we enter a character’s life at the “wrong” time, chapters before we will really know them as they once knew themselves, but in those blank spaces and stumblings from one time and one person to another there is a sense of immersion. Egan’s characters are everywhere, all at once, because she never limits where or when or how they can be.

The powerpoint chapter, “Great Rock and Roll Pauses” (by Alison Blake, Sasha’s daughter) has received an amount of attention that might seem exorbitant to anyone who hasn’t yet read Goon Squad. It’s this chapter, though, in which Alison charts her brother Lincoln’s obsession with pauses in rock songs, that provides a structure and way of viewing the rest of the novel. Lincoln’s description of the pause in “Bernadette” by the Four Tops acts as an explanation for his obsession with great rock pauses: “’You think, Hey, the song didn’t end after all – but then, 26.5 seconds later, it does end’” (244). It’s the pleasure, in these stories, of knowing that a story isn’t over although it appears to be over; it’s the pleasure of rediscovering a character before the marriage fell apart, or of reentering their lives and finding that they’ve managed to collect themselves in a way that seemed impossible when they first appeared. And, sometimes, the opposite pleasure, or pain, of having nothing more:

“The pause makes you think the song will end. And then the song isn’t really over, so you’re relieved. But then the song does actually end, because every song ends, obviously, and THAT. TIME. THE. END. IS. FOR. REAL.” (281)

The worlds of Egan’s characters revolve around music: people who make music, who produce music, who date people involved with music, who listen for the great pauses in music, who try (and sometimes succeed, and sometimes fail, and sometimes do both) to one degree or another to form their lives around music. We keep hearing that “time’s a goon,” and Lincoln comes closer than any of Egan’s other characters to explaining why: sometimes it pauses, sometimes we think it’s stopped, sometimes we think it’s over, but it isn’t; but we know, the whole time, that it will be over, and that eventually, that end will. be. for. real.

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14 Comments

I have read nothing but good reviews about this book. Looks like it really deserves the award it won. Thanks for sharing this review

Comment by Nana Fredua-Agyeman

Great review! I think the fact that Egan makes the reader fill in those pauses is one of the strongest parts of the novel and something that gets overlooked. There’s a delicate balance you have to strike and it could have easily gone wrong and either not given you enough information or given you too much.

Comment by Alley

Right! I can’t think of an example of a novel right now, but sometimes I’m reading a piece of flash fiction and so much is left out that you can’t do anything with the thousand words you’re left. But then, it’s always so stunning when a writer pulls it off and gives you a story that, with all those gaps you have to fill in, you just can’t let go.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I finished this a few days ago…loved it. Definitely in the top five things i’ve read all year.

I have to say the Jules Jones meeting Kitty chapter was my favorite in the book. I’m not sure why, but the powerpoint chapter didn’t work for me even with it’s structural nod to the entire novel.

Great review

Comment by Mayowa

If it hadn’t been for the way the powerpoint offered some lens for viewing the rest of the novel, I’m not sure I would have gotten much out of it. The Jules Jones chapter I didn’t love – I spent most of the story wanting to bury my face in a pillow so I could avoid seeing how he managed to bust up his career.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I actually hadn’t heard about this book– but will be searching my library for it after reading your review! It sounds magnificent!

Comment by Rebecca ♥

SO GOOD. I actually had my dad send it to me with the idea that I’d give it to another volunteer when I finished. I can’t bring myself to do that, though, so it’s coming to Albania with me…we’ll see if I manage to give it away ten months from now, or if I end up bringing it back to the States.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

Wow, great review. This has been recommended to me by a few friends and bloggers I think have great taste and I won it in a competition a little while ago. I am glad that I now realise its a collection of short stories, albeit connected one. That might have turned me off if I didn’tknow before I started.

What makes me wary despite the good reviews is that I very rarely seem to enjoy a book that has won the Pulitzer Prize. But you never know, this one might be the one to break the mould.

Comment by Becky (Page Turners)

I avoid a lot of award winners too, because I so often go into a reading with high expectations (it won the pulitzer! the booker! the orange prize!) that disappointment is inevitable. This one, though, works.

I read a review of Goon Squad a few months ago by someone who didn’t realize the “novel” was actually a collection of connected stories. Most of her review was about the structure and all the ways in which it “failed” to be a novel. Well, duh; it’s not a novel. I think that you’re correct in thinking that having the right expectations (knowing whether you’re going to be reading a novel, or stories or, hell, a memoir) when you begin reading a book can improve your experience. Not dissimilar to our feelings on award winners…if you go into a book expecting a certain thing and find something different, you (well, I) end up feeling sort of lost and let down.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

“Goon Squad” is a fine example of the much-expanded reach of storytelling — authors and readers aren’t content to let their characters sail away into the great unknown, as they do at the end of A Series of Unfortunate Events (which masquerades as a children’s book series). I think Away by Amy Bloom and The Known World by Edward P. Jones similarly explode traditional bounds of plot.

Comment by Richard LeComte

I have only read positive reviews of this book, but for some reason have hesitated buying it. Why? I don’t know, I think maybe I have this belief that a lot of award-winning books are over-hyped. But I love the idea of leaving unexplored gaps in the narrative of characters’ lives. Yep, I think I’ll have to give in. You’ve convinced me. Thanks for the review! How do you read so fast?

Comment by Erin

Man, I understand, I spent about a year not reading this book in large part because everyone was reading it and it was winning all those awards. (It also helped that I couldn’t go to a bookstore – but still, could’ve bought the ebook.)

As for rate of reading…even when you add up my work, coffees I go on, playing with my host sister…I’m not working an American-style eight-hour day, not even close. I’ve got a lot more free time for reading than I ever did in the States… It’s going to be a shock when I go back to the forty-hour week.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I keep thinking or purchasing this book and then at the last minute I don’t! Your review has made me want to read it now.

Comment by Nicola

[…] July, standing in a Barnes & Noble in Florida with my dad, having already picked out copies of A Visit From the Goon Squad and The Blind Assassin and one other title which clearly means a lot to me, given I’ve […]

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