A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
I was not going to read this book, for much the same reason I’ve been avoiding Stieg Larsson. I don’t fall prey to the idea that something getting popular makes it somehow unworthy—I mean, I’m a fantasy fan, for Pete’s sake. But I still had the same reaction; just breezing past it as something I don’t want to read. And then one of my very favorite professors told me he had enjoyed it. Feeling guilty about talking about speculative fiction non-stop, I decided to pick it up so we’d have something to talk about. …Yeah, it’s going to be an awkward conversation.
A Visit from the Goon Squad follows the lives of several people in and around the music business, linked, more or less, by Bennie Salazar, a music executive, and his kleptomaniac assistant, Sasha. Shifting from the 1960s to the 1980s to the near future, Egan examines the aging process in a digital world increasingly focused on youth culture, jumping from disaffected young punks to suburban housewives to aged rock stars.
While Jennifer Egan calls A Visit from the Goon Squad a novel, it’s functionally a short story collection focused on the same theme with a shared cast. In fact, three chapters were originally published as short stories in The New Yorker—the opening chapter was published in 2007 and can be read here. I’m not quite sure what to make of this. On one hand, Egan can do what she wants; on another, I find it a little disingenuous to present this as a novel. In any case, it’s functionally a short story collection to me; while characters crop up again and again, we don’t explore them as deeply as we could in a novel dedicated to them. (Not that I mind; several of the male characters are downright repulsive, especially in the way they treat women.) While the fact that the characters know each other (or know of each other) makes the transitions smoother, the stories aren’t particularly related to each other, save in their focus on aging in the digital age and how awful that is.
In that focus, A Visit from the Goon Squad is incredibly dark. It’s not just the fact that people die unsatisfied with life (an incredibly horrifying concept to me), cheat on each other, steal, and otherwise act abominably—but the fact that there’s very little redeeming value about any of them. For instance, Bennie Salazar, who is, more or less, the crux of the book, is, well, repulsive. The closest we get to hope is in the novel’s most interesting piece, a PowerPoint journal written by Sasha’s daughter a little in the future. In diagrams that could have turned out gimmicky but are surprisingly handled well, the little girl contemplates her parents’ history, her family’s connection, and her autistic brother’s relationship with their father. Even as Sasha’s daughter realizes that her “job is to make people feel uncomfortable” (204), she watches her brother and her father finally connect. This short shorty is an absolute relief, awash as the reader has been in a landscape of crushed hopes and dreams. It’s one of two pieces where Egan flirts with near-future science fiction, imagining the evolution of media and our dependence on electronics.
Ultimately, I came away with a lack of connection, which is, to be fair, perhaps the effect that Egan is going for. As individual short stories, I think the chapters presented in A Visit from the Goon Squad make for haunting, brief glimpses into the lives of terrible people; but as a novel, it’s hard to stick with them for the good moments. I think everyone has different expectations for a novel and for a short story collection, and consistency belongs in the land of the novel. I still think of it as a short story collection with good stories to remember and bad ones to forget, rather than a novel with highs and lows. (Goodness, I had more to say about that than I thought!) While I’m quite glad I read it (if only to catch up with the rest of the literary world), I’m a little bewildered by the fact it won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature; comparing this to say, Middlesex, is asking for A Visit from the Goon Squad to be utterly blown out of the water.
Bottom line: Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad might be called a novel, but it’s functionally a short story collection—an incredibly dark short story collection that presents aging in the digital era as an unfathomable horror. (How incredibly pleasant for those who age, which would be everyone.) If you’re interested, give it a shot, but I wouldn’t go out of your way.
I rented this book from my college library.
- Egan, Jennifer. A Visit from the Goon Squad. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011. Print.