A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

In a nutshell… It’s a book of short stories connected loosely by characters, told in a variety of styles.

Strengths: It’s original.

Weaknesses: It doesn’t always work.

Why I read it: Part of the Goodreads Book Club

Pages: 274

Published: 2010 

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday

Setting: America

Rating: 6 out of 10

If you liked this, try: I’m really not sure…this is not my kind of book.

A Visit from the Goon Squad seems to be appearing everywhere at the moment. When the Goodreads Book Club announced it as their original book, I thought I would take part and see what the hype was about. This book has won numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. While the book is innovative, telling each story in a variety of styles (hello, chapter told entirely in PowerPoint), it just didn’t really work well enough for me.

The first chapter is straightforward enough, telling the story of Sasha, who is a compulsive kleptomaniac. She also has a bath in the kitchen of her apartment (that’s odd to me). Sasha then disappears into the background for the rest of the book. It is unusual to have a character introduced in the first chapter, then only see fleeting glimpses of them, but hey, I’ll roll with it for now…

Chapter Two introduces Bennie, Sasha’s boss. He’s old, trying to restore vitality by eating gold flakes. He also tries to come on to Sasha. I didn’t feel any sympathy for Bernie here.

Chapter Three is told by Rhea, Bernie’s childhood friend. (See how we’re drifting away from Sasha, but loosely linked?) Rhea uses the word ‘goes’ far too much in this chapter for my liking. Is it to demonstrate her youth despite her presence on the punk rock scene? This read awkwardly for me, perhaps it was trying to represent the teenage years.

Chapter Four involves the use of a ‘time telescope’. It takes place on an African safari and introduces some new characters, namely Rolph and Mindy. We also find out in this chapter what will happen to each of these characters in the future. Killing the suspense or just dispensing with minor characters? I found this one of the better written chapters.

Chapter Five deals with age and Jocelyn returns as the main voice. We see the aging of Lou, Bennie’s original manager/guru and compare it to Jocelyn and Rhea’s aging. Were they successful or failures? Who are we to judge? I felt this chapter focused on regret, although I note that others felt it was more about redemption.

Chapter Six brings one of Bennie’s teenage friends, Scotty to the fore. He’s a flawed but likeable character. He gives Bernie, who seems wildly successful, a freshly caught fish for a present. I didn’t try to understand the symbolism of this, nor of his compulsive dry cleaning of his jacket.

Chapter Seven represents the B side (or second half) the book – that’s in record terms, kids. This was another enjoyable chapter for me, revolving around Bennie’s wife of the time, Stephanie. She’s trapped in a wealthy, conservative suburb and feels stifled. Bennie is also out of his depth here but copes with it differently. I saw some of Betty Draper in Stephanie here.

Chapter Eight brings two briefly mentioned characters to the fore – La Doll and Kitty. This was a quirky chapter and I enjoyed the moving away from some of the recurring characters. It was also more humorous and desperate than previous chapters.

Chapter Nine is written as an article by Jules, another character mentioned briefly prior to this chapter. The subject is an uncomfortable one – about how he attacks a film star (Kitty from the previous chapter), but we know that he’s unwell mentally. The article read like a long stream of consciousness and did very well I thought about catching the state of Jules’ manic mind. The footnotes are especially troubled and show his lack of insight.

I can’t say that I enjoyed Chapter 10. This deals with Sasha’s (remember her?) friend Rob and how he meets his death. (We knew he was dead from the first chapter). It uses second person narration, which I can’t say I’m fond of.

In Chapter 11, we finally see Sasha again, but in the past. Her uncle has been sent to find her, but is quite lazy about the whole process and meets her at random. This was about finding something you don’t expect.

Chapter 12 is The Great Powerpoint Chapter. Told entirely in slides, it makes more sense than you think. I thought it was good (I got the gist of the story with very few words). We see Sasha again – this time in the future – which probably endears the reader some more. Some have criticised the ability to read this on eReaders, but I had no problems with my Sony (I use it for lectures anyway).

Chapter 13, the final chapter, was a letdown for me. Set again in the future, it involves people being so reliant on technology that they find it embarrassing to speak face to face. We see more recurring characters – some in odd situations and the introduction of text speak. This was one of my least liked chapters.

While it uses interesting devices, this book requires you to be vigilant in regards to remembering characters and details. I think I’ve understood as best as I’m going to by reading this review. This is one for the English class to study.

I selected this post to be featured on my blog’s page at Book Review Blogs.
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9 thoughts on “A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

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  1. I bought this when I knew it won the Pulitzer; my mother read it before I had the chance, and she said it made her feel ‘slimed’. It’s interesting to know that you weren’t crazy about this book. I probably won’t be either, but we’ll talk more when I get around to reading it.

    1. I like your mother’s comment! It’s okay, but I know there’s books out there that I haven’t read and will absolutely love. I had fun with the Goodreads book club, it definitely made me think more about the book.

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