Like many of the books I’ve been reading these days, A Visit From the Goon Squad (2011) by Jennifer Egan is on my list of 50 Books Every Woman Should Read Before She Turns 40. I had heard of this one before. It won the Pulitzer Prize, and a coworker recommended it to me back when it was first published. However, I think I was turned off by the title. What is a goon squad? It sounded violent and probably not fun to read.
So when I finally picked it up, I began reading with a little optimism and some trepidation. A Visit From the Goon Squad turned out to be a collection of intertwined short stories that jump from time to time and character to character. Some of the writing is especially original and creative. One chapter is simply a power point presentation (it is much better to go to the website link for this chapter than to try to read it on Kindle). Now, this description, along with the title, would be more than enough to scare me away from reading this book. I generally prefer straight-forward narration with good, interesting characters that draw me in and keep me engaged. I find gimmicks frustrating, distracting, and rarely useful.
The surprising thing, though, was that I loved this book. The characters and the stories immediately drew me in. Instead of readjusting with every new chapter and every new character’s viewpoint, I looked forward to who I would be reading about next. The book begins with a young, New Yorker kleptomaniac out on a blind date. She steals a woman’s wallet in the bathroom because she can. She also works as an assistant to Bernie, a famous music producer. The next chapter is from the point of view of one of Bernie’s high school friends, years ago, when they were in high school in California. Another friend of Bernie’s gets involved with a music producer who ends up becoming Bernie’s mentor. The next chapter jumps even farther because it is from the point of view of the new girlfriend of Bernie’s mentor while the family is on a trip to Africa. The book continues to spread, jumping from character to character, forward and backward in time, with a web of connections linking them together. At one point, the book is in an undisclosed location with a murderous, dictatorial general, and yet it all makes sense.
Each chapter was interesting and well-written all on it’s own. But the more you read, the more you learn about each character. Seeing the characters in many different time periods and from so many different perspectives gave them a surprising amount of depth. Egan also showcases how time can change both circumstances and people. Seeing Sasha as we see her in the beginning of the book, and then seeing Sasha through the eyes of her daughter was perhaps the starkest example of this.
I am impressed beyond words at how Egan was able to write such believable, interesting, characters with this format. The intricacies of how everyone is connected, how they see each other, and how they evolve is sometimes hard to keep straight as the reader. I cannot comprehend how Egan managed to create this whole thing. And yes, that power point chapter may have turned me off if it were in another book. However, by the time I got to it, I was so invested in the characters and the story, that Egan could have filled a chapter with bumper sticker slogans, and I wouldn’t have minded.
Nothing quite matches the joy of finding a book that speaks to you, especially when you are not expecting it. I am very glad that I finally read this book.
“In this story, I’m the girl no one is waiting for.”
“We know him from a time when there was no such thing as normal people dying.”
“[O]ne of those people who used the unforgivable phrase ‘meant to be’–usually when describing her own good fortune or the disasters that had befallen other people.”
“The album’s called A to B, right?” Bosco said. “And that’s the question I want to hit straight on: how did I got from being a rock star to being a fat fuck no one cares about?”
“Time’s a goon right? Isn’t that the expression?”
You can find all of my reviews on my blog.