Sunday, May 1, 2011

A Visit from the Goon Squad: Impressions

Yeah, yeah, I hopped right on that Pulitzer bandwagon and last week read A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan because: why not? Admittedly, I didn't really enjoy this book when I first started reading it. The characters seemed flawed beyond likability in the first few chapters - well, let me back up. If you don't know (which I didn't until I started reading), this book is told in a series of short stories from different characters' perspectives. It meanders through time, from the 1970s to (yes) the 2020s. It often takes several pages to fully place where in time a particular story falls, and often one cannot do this with precision, which was occasionally frustrating,* but mostly was not an issue. In essence, I wasn't impressed with the first few character perspectives, and it sometimes seemed that Egan was trying desperately not to write like a woman, instead of just writing like a person. This view may have been colored by her comments moments after learning she won the Pulitzer (that seemed to unnecessarily denigrate genre authors), but it's hard to say. Ultimately, however, her writing and the novel overall won me over, and I came away more than glad for having read it.

The story revolves around music and the music industry, using it as a backdrop to comment on the cultural changes through the decades, and what we might expect in the future as technological advances morph and accelerate, and the word 'progress' fully realizes itself as a euphemism for any change at all. "Time's a goon, right?" an aging, swelling former rock star laments. It's not hard to see how Egan arrived at her disconcerting vision of what's to come, which is not a dramatic dystopia like those in Atwood's or Orwell's vision, but it's a subtler, more amorphous society based on the obsession with 'connecting' to others we see now. The chapters vary greatly stylistically, with one in PowerPoint form and another that seems to poke fun at David Foster Wallace and his obsession with annotations. 

All the characters seem to start from similar backgrounds, and then their paths diverge dramatically, their lives crisscrossing, rising and falling in different tempos. The novel examines race and class, and the imaginary - and often painful - walls between such distinctions: 
Things had gotten -- what's the word? Dry. Things had gotten sort of dry for me. I was working as a city janitor in a neighborhood elementary school and, in summers, collecting litter in the park alongside the East River near the WIlliamsburg Bridge. I felt no shame whatsoever in these activities, because I understood what almost no one else seemed to grasp: that there was only an infinitesimal difference, a difference so small that it barely existed except as a figment of the human imagination, between working in a tall green glass building on Park Avenue and collecting litter in a park. In fact, there may have been no difference at all. 
That seems to be an over-arching theme of the book: there is very little difference between any of us. We classify and judge each other based on random distinctions, some within our control, most not. Even those that seem to have crossed some uncrossable moral line: this could have been you, in different circumstances. In those circumstances. You cannot know and so you don't really have the right to judge. It's an easy thing to forget. This theme, done subtly (that passage is the only point I recall it laid out explicitly) and done well, will always win me over, and is probably how Goon Squad ultimately won my admiration. 

My favorite chapters (in case you've read the book) were A to B, Pure Language and Good-bye, My Love. I probably related to some aspect of these characters the most, or at least to some part of these particular glimpses, mostly that deal with how relationships can grow and sometimes disintegrate over time. They aren't particularly optimistic, but they aren't hopeless either. What I'm taking away from the book is this: If we can remember and focus on how similar we all our, most of our conflicts might melt away. Our problems mainly stem from the fact that we usually find it impossible to relate to one another, and instead we comfort ourselves in our own tragic uniqueness. Or something like that. I forget this all the time, and it reminds me of a passage in DFW's Kenyon Speech that captures the same feeling, more or less: 
But if you've really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars -- compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff's necessarily true: The only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't.**
Maybe I'm reading way too much into A Visit from the Goon Squad - sometimes it's hard for me to tell. It doesn't really matter, though, what was intended. What I'm taking away made the read worthwhile, at least to me. 

*I have this thing with knowing when in time things took place, I think I've mentioned it before and will undoubtedly mention it again. 

**This passage, in it's greater context, is why I really want to read Wallace. I should get on that. I should do a lot of things.


  1. I plan on jumping on the bandwagon and finally reading this book. I'll remember to push through the first few chapters/stories. Great review!

  2. I'm due for a book shopping session fairly soon and this is on my list. Great presentation, you make me a little more eager to read it.

  3. Great review. I bought this book last weekend and plan on reading it shortly. I feel like Pulitzer bandwagons are the best kind :)

  4. This review explains a bit more than i have seen so far. I hadnot gotten a clear picture until now. I will be moving this up to read soon. Curious as to how much it will resonate.

  5. Oh, wow, I'm glad everyone is planning to read this soon! I'll be very interested to see what all of you think, and be sure to look out for posts!

  6. I'm glad to hear the book won you over! I have to confess that her comments also put me off, but of course I'm planning to give her a chance anyway. The music theme certainly appeals to me. And I completely agree that what we take away from a book is just as valid as what the author intended to write into it.

  7. Very nice review! My favorite was A to B also - just a wonderful story. I didn't think the DFW part was poking at fun at him as much as it was a homage TO him. Anyway - very good point about the theme of connections and relationships, and how they evolve, and how they can re-emerge suddenly. Sasha re-connects with Dean via Facebook - ha!

  8. Nymeth - It's worth giving the book a chance, definitely. I hope you enjoy it!

    Greg - Maybe that was more what she was doing there, I wasn't really sure, but that makes more sense. I completely forgot about the Sasha-Dean reconnection (funny, since that's how I reconnected with the coconspirator 3.5 years ago).


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