Impressions of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad

(Spoiler Alert: Life is Tough, Get Your Rocks Off While You Can)

If you’ve read my recent posts, you’ll know that I took a break last week as a result of dealing with final papers and grading. However, worry no longer about my sanity, as I have made it through my first term of grad school relatively unscathed, which I’ve been assured is a triumph of its own.

To celebrate I did what any good li’l English Major does, I started a new book unattached to any curriculum with [a] glass[es] of red wine. Unlike most weeks though, where I normally settle on a book at random either from my unread books at home or available through the OSU Library system, the books I’m reading over my too-short winter break have been fussed and argued over in a little digital notebook on my laptop’s Dashboard. First up on the list is the aforementioned A Visit From The Goon Squad, a book I had wanted to read since I heard about it after it won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011. Described to me as a book about contemporary rock music by some unknown source, I figured I’d save it for whenever I needed a reprieve from Chaucer and company. However, I decided to break the glass early on this one not only because I’ve heard it mentioned with increased frequency in the past few months, but also because I have not been listening to new music with the intensity I did a year ago [an effect of both the all-consuming nature of grad school coupled with my new anti-piracy stance] and felt it could help excite me again about what it is about music that always made hunting for it so enjoyable.

Nearing the end of the book this had not yet happened. In fact, at several points up until then, the book seems to affirm that that type of passion for anything (lovers, spouses, music and other art) inevitably cools to a point beyond which even the mightiest of microwaves can hope to reheat it. Egan manages to restate this idea again and again in interesting ways through her use of multiple points of view and leaps about the timeline, intersecting her characters’ stories in an organic way that many vignette films and books could learn from. Egan seems to trusts her readers to understand the ways these stories interlock without ever explicitly stating the ways they interconnect or providing clear indicators at the beginning of chapters that reveal the sequence of events. Instead, she trusts that through her writing we’ll be able to sort out the age and place of characters, and in a time where we’ve externalized much of our memory, Egan forces her readers to retain the world of her story in our mind’s through the book’s entirety. My favorite part of the book were the moments where Egan would create a marvelous, but brief description of a character who is only mentioned then brought back several chapters later as a focal point of the overriding narrative.

Egan employs several storytelling techniques, using first person singular and plural, second person, and third person points of view to provide readers a multidimensional view of the world in which her characters reside. In one instance her story shifts to a character’s celebrity profile written by another character mentioned by another character several chapters before. Then in the penultimate chapter, Egan tells the closing narrative (although on second thought the last chapter is all ABOUT that character) of one of her characters through the use of a slideshow written from character’s daughter’s POV. Those touches create an immersive reading experience that often come off gimmicky in the hands of other writers, but Egan pulls  it all off with a deftness that stayed with me.

I haven’t touched on the plot of the story, because the exact happenings don’t really seem to be Egan’s concern. While there are characters that the larger ensemble revolves around, Bennie and Sasha, what I think Egan is trying to tell us through her varying POV is that every person considers themselves the protagonists of their story, and that if we examine anyone’s lives close enough and at the right moment, we’ll find a remarkable tale that perhaps only that person has ever experienced.

Read this book if you’re a klepto. Read this book if you lost someone to a drowning incident. Read this book if you had to jump off a train in Africa.


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