Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad has got to be one of the most hyped books in the past few months. My co-worker had been recommending it since it first came out, but it wasn’t really on my list of books I have to read. I’m not too big a music fan, and to be honest, the idea of a chapter in powerpoint, while intriguing, also turned me off: I’m not too big on gimmicks. What eventually convinced me to read Goon Squad is the phrase “Time’s a goon.” I’d heard of it as a quote from the book, and the significance of that with the title touched me. So I read it.
True enough, when a character utters that line in the middle of the book, I got… well, not chills, but that ineffable pull you feel whenever something touches you deeply and makes you want to reach for something just beyond your grasp. “Time’s a goon” ties together all the seemingly disparate stories within Goon Squad, and makes you realize the breadth of Egan’s tale. Goon Squad begins with Sasha, who suffers from kleptomania, and her boss Bennie, an aging music executive and former rocker. The story then traipses through time, picking up one element in a character’s story and skipping with it into the past, often with a completely new set of characters and an altogether different perspective.
I’d say the story feels like a web, with threads stretching out in different directions and spinning everywhere till it returns to the centre, but it feels more like a hyperlinked cyberweb. You click on random elements, get taken to some other story that’s still somehow connected, and, in the end, return home. I may have been wary of the Powerpoint chapter, but Egan has changed my mind. The Powerpoint, with all its bullets and arrows and random phrases in bubbles, depicts the overall structure of Goon Squad perfectly. Because this chapter is narrated by a younger character, the next generation, so to speak, its form also wonderfully illustrates the drastic changes that come with the inevitable passage of time. And, quite frankly, the powerpoint form turns what could’ve been a maudlin, albeit emotionally significant, chapter into something zippier and more interesting.
So did I like Goon Squad? I liked portions of it, ended up feeling deeply about some of the characters, and I admire what Egan has accomplished. I didn’t completely love it, and that may just be because I couldn’t fit it all into a linear narrative. I found myself caring about a character and wanting to find out more about him/her, only in the next chapter to be taken to a completely new set of characters, or an event in the character’s past. There are a lot of characters, some of whom only appear for a chapter, and after a while, I just got confused about how a certain character knew another (which I knew was explained in an earlier chapter, but which I’d forgotten already).
I liked the Powerpoint chapter, but a couple of the other gimmicks just made me go “meh.” Egan uses footnotes in one chapter, which reminded me of David Foster Wallace, but overall, I found the actual events in the chapter much more compelling. The footnotes were okay, but just that: okay. The thing about text messaging at the end, where a young character gets tongue-tied when she speaks and needs to “T” her responses to someone right in front of her, is funny, kinda sad, and actually reminds me a lot of what’s happening in real life. That being said, Egan then needed to continue with the conceit, and, especially with a little kid texting along, it just started to feel precious. Especially with a lot of phones now having QWERTY keyboards, text language phrases like “4 rEl??” and “no more Ar/lyt” just feels like it’s trying too hard to be hip.
Would I recommend it? Sure. It’s a Pulitzer winner, and there are points when the realization about time and aging, and seeing these characters age in ways they didn’t expect or particularly wish for, is poignant, and heart-tugging. At times, especially in the first chapter, it reminded me of Eleanor Henderson’s Ten Thousand Saints, probably because of the description of music, and the insights on time and aging. Egan does use some clever gimmicks, and for the most part, uses them well, or at least has a good reason for using them (not just gimmicks for gimmicks’ sake). I would’ve preferred a bit more focus, perhaps a more linear narrative or at least less characters. But that would’ve been a different book and not as ground-breaking.