A Visit from the Goon Squad — Jennifer Egan

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I didn’t read Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad when it hit the big PR fan and exploded all over the place. Didn’t read it when it won the National Book Critics’ Circle Award. Didn’t read it when it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Wish I hadn’t read it now. Didn’t like it for a whole bunch of reasons and all the hype and prizes just exacerbated my disappointment.

The characters are cliché, tawdry and forgettable. Did not care about a single one. Sasha, the klepto, is supposed to be simpatico and funny, I guess. She wasn’t. There was nothing original about her sticky fingers and the discussion of it was boring. Bennie, the washed up music producer, is cheesy, sort of repulsive and completely unappealing. A revolving cast of cameos is hard to keep track of, indistinguishable, and resembles caricatures more than characters. The book attempts to sum up an era from about the 1970s to some time in the not-too-distant future–about 2020 or so. There doesn’t seem to be anything redeeming about the souls Egan creates to people this history. Her take on all of us is decidedly unflattering–bunch of self-absorbed, not especially bright losers–people you wouldn’t want to share a cup of coffee with.

The text is a miscellany of authorial styles pasted together with school glue that doesn’t hold. There are copious footnotes in some chapters, truncated texting in others. A 75-page (hard copy edition) graphic section that is supposed to be a PowerPoint composed by a 12-year-old girl to capture the dynamics of her family got lots of critical attention. It doesn’t work as a diary or a PowerPoint. No 12-year-old girl would ever produce anything like it—not even on Facebook, a venue a kid would be far more likely to use in any case.

The bits—more like not-quite-connected short stories—were a grab bag of events, from a jungle encounter with a genocidal general to a legendary outdoor concert that was pure marketing job start-to-finish. There was a tenement apartment with a bathtub in the kitchen, a young girl giving a blowjob to a music producer in the middle of a rock club concert turned rowdy, cocaine snorting, pot smoking, Xanax popping, ad infinitum. In a story, things should be there for a reason–the development of the characters or the plot maybe? Hey, I live in New York City where there are still a few misplaced clawfoot tubs in tenement apartments. The demise of the music business and ubiquitous marketing–sizzle instead of steak–are not news. Neither are aging washed-up teen celebrities, genocidal generals, drug abuse or environmental fail. I was not wonderstruck at all these shiny discoveries.  Readers are not rubes and I didn’t find the inclusion of tech-speak or the stereotypes clever or compelling.

Aaarrgh. Why did this book make me so mad? Egan can string words together but the narrative seemed glib and superficial–I kept waiting to be entertained or enlightened. Telling stories should be about giving gifts in exchange for time and attention. That is the point of art—to offer something important, not to show-off.  A Visit from the Goon Squad isn’t positioned as a piece of assembly-line fiction designed solely to sell boatloads of copies in airports and big box stores and it isn’t a book-like object notable only for the celebrity name on the cover. It arrived with certain expectations–a good read maybe? Something novel and thought-provoking? I’d like to think the literary establishment cared more about readers when it conferred its accolades and prizes. In this case, I guess you really can’t judge a book by the awards and blurbs on its cover.

A Visit from the Goon Squad   Jennifer Egan | Alfred A. Knopf  2010

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