Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan — 352 pgs

In this winding and complex narrative, we meet a group of eclectic individuals and share the stories of their lives as seen through the twisted vagaries of time. Sasha is a beautiful kleptomaniac with a heart of gold, who works for record producer Bennie, a man on the brink of being passe who has taken to enhancing his morning coffee with gold flakes that he thinks will cure his impotence. Spiraling backwards, we meet Bennie as a young teenager and get a look into his life and the lives of his friends as they traverse the punk scene of the eighties. We also trip backwards into the life of Lou, a badly behaved and narcissistic record producer. From there, the story flashes forward and back, traipsing through the past, present and future, encompassing the lives and times of a group of people connected through the six degrees of separation. This is a story of angst, camaraderie, and most of all music, and Egan, exploring the saying that time is a goon, gives us a tale that bends in its fluid structure and whips in perspective from character to character, giving us a tale that not only beautifully encompasses the lives of a group of people moving through time in an emotional path that traverses the bounds of conventional storytelling but turns it into a fine tuned art.

I had been wanting to read this book for awhile, and having read several great reviews of it all over the blogosphere, I knew it was only a matter of time before I read it for myself. Then it won the Pulitzer, and a little fire was lit under me not to let this book languish on my shelves any longer. And I ended up loving it. It was strange and somewhat directionless, but it was like nothing I’ve ever read before, and I enjoyed every last word. Egan does a great job with this ambitious story, and where it could have been a huge and sprawling mess, I found it to be intricately paced and very ingeniously plotted.

In the first few chapters, the reader is introduced to a handful of characters and is served a brief snippet of their lives. Sasha is stealing and trying to get help. Bennie is feeling old and out of it and is eating gold flakes. Then whoosh, we’re off, and everything is moving in the realm of tangents and one-offs, and we’re discovering just how Benny got to be who he is today, and are meeting other people who have a brief and fleeting relationship with our main characters. As the chapters push forward, we get closer and farther from Bennie and Sasha, but, like the characters in Six Degrees of Separation, all of these people are somehow related to each other. Egan handles this beautifully, and the only way to describe it is to imagine stepping into the lives of a crowd of people and jumping from perspective to perspective as you go careening through their life stories. But there’s no awkward confusion, no grasping or lingering uncomfortably as the story stretches aimlessly forward. Just a deep and resonating thrum as everything turns imperceptibly on its unexpected axis.

Each chapter is a vignette of another life, and as such they come across as a morphing of a short character study and a stylized short story focused on a the central themes of music and time. As we patter backwards and forwards through these characters’ lives, we begin to see that there’s no real linear progression in this book. Time is more fluid and expansive in the story that Egan tells, but it’s all done so skillfully that there is never confusion or trepidation when reading and experiencing something out of the ordinary. Time and issues elongate and contract, leading you backwards and forwards as if in a maze. These characters are not only interesting to read about, they are unusually perceptive about the lives they have led and will lead, leaving readers to marvel over the back bends that Egan performs in the juxtapositioning of her tale and its clever character contortions.

At the heart of at all is the reflection of time and what it does to even the most optimistic and casual observer. Egan goes to great lengths to show her readers what it’s like to live both in the moment and to look back on it. Music plays a great part of this book, and though I didn’t really know much about the bands and terminology she used, I found these sections thrumming with just as much life as the other sections. There was even a chapter that was related in a complex power-point presentation, proving that Egan is just as talented at mixing media as she is at creating the type of story that will keep readers flipping the pages and hungering for more. As I watched these characters come together and pull apart, there was a sense of  a rising nostalgia in me, as well as a hopefulness that played about the story’s edges.

Though I haven’t read many Pulitzer winners, I would have to say this book deserves the prize wholeheartedly. It’s a book that has the capacity to make readers nervous, what with all the nonlinear shuffles and strange combinations of characters and situations, but Egan handles it all like a master, so there’s no real reason to be anxious at all. It was a remarkable story that left me pondering for hours after I had turned the last page, and I heartily recommend it to readers who haven’t yet given it a shot. A complex but fascinating read. Highly recommended!

26 comments:

Mrs. Q: Book Addict said...

This one sounds really good. The story line seems very unique. I haven't read many Pulitzer Prize winners either.

Sandy Nawrot said...

This was one of those books (the kind that I find maybe a half dozen times in a year if I'm lucky) that just makes me buzz. So clever, so different. And for anyone out there that wondered, they do pull off the power point most excellently on audio.

bermudaonion said...

I'm so glad to see this book deserves the buzz it got. I bought it the last time I visited Hub City Books! See, Sandy got here before I did this morning.

Kathy said...

Great review, it is so hard to capture the essence of this book, but you did! Glad you enjoyed it, I did too.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I tried to read this, but it seemed to weird. But I admit I didn't try very hard. Maybe I'll try the Sandy method and listen to it on audio!

Ti said...

I know that quite a few readers had issues with the structure, but it sounds like something I'd like a lot. I just haven't gotten around to it yet!

nomadreader said...

I'm so glad you liked this one! It was one of my favorite reads last year, and I concur it deserves the Pulitzer. It's inventive and utterly lovely.

Amy said...

I have this book sitting on my nightstand and hope to get to it soon. I didn't read your review in depth, just skimmed it but I thought it was terrific. I will be back after I read it! I'm glad you enjoyed it!

Darlene said...

I didn't fully read your review because I just picked this book up a while ago and want to read it. I just schooched down to see your final thoughts and I'm glad to see you liked it. I'll be back when I manage to read it myself. lol.

Suko said...

Wow! This book sounds incredibly unique! Your excellent review captures your enthusiasm for this Pulitzer Prize winner. I will definitely add it to my TBR list.

Meghan said...

I also bought this one but it's been languishing on my shelves - unlike you I'm not so good at picking up the books I really want to read! I will have to change that.

Amy said...

I'm so craving this book right now. I keep putting off buying it because I've read some strange reviews but I feel I've seen the light. Can't wait. :-)

Pam (@iwriteinbooks) said...

For some reason I thought you'd already read this one. Great review as usual and I'm SO glad you loved this. I also thought it was pretty darn deserving of the prize but you never know because some years, books don't!

quirky girls said...

I really loved this one. I enjoyed learning about the characters and how they got to be who and where they were.

-jehara

Darlyn (Your Move, Dickens) said...

Great review! :) I usually stick to classics and eye modern fiction with suspicion, but A Visit from the Goon Squad sounds very interesting, especially the way it is told.

Jenny said...

Sounds very complex but in such a smart good way, lol... I actually started reading this once and was enjoying it but had to put it on hold for review books and never got back to it. Looks like I need to! Plus I'm dying to read the power point chapter!

TheBookGirl said...

I have had very mixed experiences with the Pulitzers that I've read; some I loved, and others, not so much...I have to confess to being one of those people "made nervous" as you say, by the things I've read about the way the book is constructed. I value your opinion, though, so your hearty endorsement has made me resolved to look for it in the library :)

Steph said...

Oh, I am so glad to hear that you liked this one as it's a book that I know I need to read and yet have been putting off for ages. You know I have the tendency to "hoard" books I think I will like, which is also why I haven't read The Imperfectionists either. I have no idea why I save books that I believe I will love rather than just reading them so that I can get on with the loving them part, but such is my albatross!

Aths said...

I did give this book a try couple of months ago but couldn't get into it at all. But then I was reading it at a time when very few books worked for me, so it's not this book's fault. I'm glad you enjoyed it though - I am hoping to give it a try sometime soon!

Nymeth said...

What an excellent review. It's about time I get this from the library. The music references make it sound right up my alley. I tend to be lucky with Pulitzer winners, and it's good to know this isn't likely to be an exception.

Nana Fredua-Agyeman said...

You also handled this review perfectly. Some novels are difficult to handle in reviews. I have read several positive reviews of this novel. A call to read? perhaps!

Kailana said...

I have had this out from the library a couple times and still haven't finished it. I just can't seem to get caught up in the beginning of it... I will have to try again! I really enjoyed The Keep by her, but that is all I have read.

Jenners said...

Most of the time, I've not read the books you write reviews for. This time, I have read it, and I realize even more how amazing and thoughtful your reviews are. This was a hard one to review and give an accurate description of but you totally rocked it. I need to reread this one (something I almost never do) and read it in just one or two sittings rather than spread out over a week, which is how I read it the first time. It became too had to weave all the threads together.

Beth F said...

I'm not quite sure why I've avoided reading this. Usually I'm disappointed by books that win prizes or get a ton of buzz. You've made me think I should give it a try.

Erin said...

I've been on the fence about this one since I first heard about it. It really doesn't sound like my kind of book, but you write about it in a way that makes me want to try it out! If I do pick it up ever, you (and this review) will be to blame...in a good way, of course!

Christopher said...

Heather, I love how coincidences can occur. I've assigned this book to my college English class, and we start it next week after having just finished "The Art of Racing in the Rain" by Garth Stein (another great book).

I don't know where the discussions will go with Egan's book. I told the students in advance to see if they can figure out what year each chapter takes place. If the first chapter is a year or two ago, then the last has to be, perhaps, 2030. Egan, like Margaret Atwood, springs us into the future, but it doesn't feel like science fiction.

You called each chapter a vignette, which is one good way to look at it. Having written "The Brightest Moon of the Century," I see Egan has taken a similar approach: each chapter is a short story. However, she doesn't go linearly but moves around in time. I love the book, and I relish that I get to hear in my class students talking about it.

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