Review: A Visit From The Goon Squad

This is my book review for A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

I intend to use the ASPECT method for my discussion and will not spoil the ending.

Bennie is an aging former punk rocker and record executive. Sasha is the passionate, troubled young woman he employs. Here Jennifer Egan brilliantly reveals their pasts, along with the inner lives of a host of other characters whose paths intersect with theirs. With music pulsing on every page, A Visit from the Goon Squad is a startling, exhilarating novel of self-destruction and redemption.

ASPECT Method (I created this, I used it, feel free to do the same.)

A Atmosphere: How did it make me feel? What was the world like? This might include the overall tone.

S Style: What was the writing style like? Simplistic or sophisticated? Clunky or beautiful?

P Plot/Pace: Was it engaging? Were there holes? Did it feel too rushed or too long?

E Enjoyment: Was it a chore to finish or compelling enough that I picked it over other fun activities?

C Characters: Were they believable, sympathetic, interesting?

T This? Why did I read *This* book?

Starting with the Why THIS book again… because I can.

I am fairly sure I bought this book at a used bookstore because the back blurb gave me vague High Fidelity vibes, and I freakin’ LOVED High Fidelity.

Tiny Rant: (That’s High Fidelity by Nick Hornby in case you don’t know… an American movie starring John Cusack that I highly enjoyed in the theater in the year 2000 and then promptly went out and found the book it was based on (1995 and British) which I also loved. You might be wondering, with a pedigree like that, if I might have done this book and movie combo on my “books into movies podcast”… but I haven’t because, honestly, I am a bit afraid that neither is as good as I remember. Someday, perhaps.)

Anyway. ^^that^^ is why I bought this book at some point in my past… and the fact that it was in a TBR stack and looked like it might be a bit lighter in tone than the last few books I have read is why I decided to read it this week.

And… here’s the thing. It is not High Fidelity. Which is fine. But, more importantly, it is not a novel.

Bigger Rant: Novel:  an invented prose narrative that is usually long and complex and deals especially with human experience through a usually connected sequence of events.

Ok. Maybe, if we take a generous shot of alcoholic poetic license and squint at the definition… maybe it is is sort of… novel-like.

Novel-like. That about as close as I think I can go. 

But wait, you might be saying… it says “a novel” right there on the cover. What else could it be?

Well, I answer after another shot of something, I -personally and in my infinite wisdom as a bookish type person with opinions- would call it a collection of short stories.

What’s the difference? you probably don’t ask because you feel like the difference is obvious.

This, I proclaim with a flourish as I pretend that you asked:

  • A novel is a journey – not only for the characters but for the writer and the reader. There is usually a central plot, sometimes subplots, a series of events, a climax from building tension, and the conflicts are usually, at least a little, complex. Also, it is long. 50K words or more.
  • A short story is an intense experience – something to linger over and savor. There is usually only the one plot, fewer characters, far less complex sorts of conflicts… there may or may not be a climax because sometimes the short story is a vignette or slice of life. And, yes, they are shorter. 

It comes down to the size of the cast and the problem and how long it takes to solve it or if the point isn’t to solve it but to just acknowledge that it exists.

This book… is a collection of short stories. 

Like Winesburg, Ohio (Sherwood Anderson) or I, Robot (Isaac Asimov) it is a collection of interconnected short stories, but they are short stories nonetheless.

There are 13 stories (chapters) about 13 very different people.. And yes… they are connected. Main characters surface as a side character or as memories in other stories. There is even the movement of time where a side character is a young man in one story only to show up as an older man, but this time the main character, in a later story. 

But it is not a novel.

I happen to like short stories. Back in the day, I used to write them. I totally read and enjoy short stories that are connected to one another and stand-alone short stories. (Hell, I even enjoy essays, but that’s not super relevant.)

What I don’t enjoy is having a book that calls itself a novel start off with an interesting protagonist only to discover that she is only the protagonist for 18 pages.

That’s a bummer.

Ok ok, rant over. Official Review Time!

Atmosphere: We globe-trot a bit in this book but mostly it is LA and NY and music scenes. The world seems very real and the name-dropping of real bands is cleverly mixed in with fake bands so that you really buy the whole premise of this world where they exist. Everything is achingly familiar from the club scene to the college dorms to the subtle racism employed by some of the more despicable characters. 

Until the last story which jumps us ahead in time a bit and introduces some tech and some social shifts that are interesting enough that any residual grumpiness I might have still been harboring about the whole not-a-novel aspect promptly roars back angrier than ever because omg THIS would have made a truly excellent novel! What a bummer!

Style: Eagen is a gifted writer. Like, really really gifted. Her prose is interesting and the interior monologues are believable and raw, packed with emotion and super authentic. 

She does two very interesting things in this collection. Three if you count the story that is actually an article with some amazing footnotes… and usually I would but that has actually been done in other books with more or less the same level of ability. So, I am going to move past it and onto the two things I found most interesting in terms of her writing style…

First, she has a whole story in the second person. This is uncommon and challenging. Also… a bit off-putting honestly, but when done well, and in this case done to show the mental illness the character is clearly suffering from, it can be highly effective. “You scan Kaylia’s words, your mind reeling at her genius. Then, your eyes catch on an assertion that you vehemently disagree with. Your eyes narrow. Who is this random woman on the internet talking like she is some sort of authority on anything? You wonder briefly if it would be worth it to click on her name and read her profile. But you already know that it would only give you the teeny tiny bit of information she had remembered to type up… her true essence is hidden from you. That’s ok. You don’t really care. You have already moved on to another review for this book, something that will agree with what you already thought or provide fodder for that internet argument you are having with that asshole from high school.”

The other interesting thing is that one of the stories is told in PowerPoint slides. For reals. And…it is super compelling and moving. Like I said, Eagen is highly skilled. Highly.

Plot: There… is either no plot or too much plot. It’s not a novel. There is no throughline narrative. The stories themselves could be completely self-contained but put together they are like pieces of a bigger puzzle… but the puzzle doesn’t actually make a picture, just a sort of artistic design. Also, the box came missing about thirty pieces, so best of luck with that.

Characters: (Yes, I skipped Entertaining, I will circle back in a sec) Too many characters. Even if they interconnect. The book could have benefited from a flowchart of connections. Especially since it moved backward and forward in time. And especially because if you were reading this thinking it wasn’t a novel, you would have read it differently. If you don’t realize until say story 3 or 4 that no, this isn’t just shifting of perspectives in one narrative, this is a whole other ball of wax… well, it can get confusing. Not that I am against writers challenging you and pushing you to use more than your eyes when reading, but egads. There were a lot of characters. And because there were a lot of characters, we really only got to flesh ut 2 characters and only in a backhanded sort of way. Which is a bummer because I really liked a few of these characters and would have loved to spend more time with them.

Entertaining / Would I recommend this book? There is a reason this book won a Pulitzer. Again, Eagen’s skill is amazing. But… and I know I was bummed by the bait and switch of novel vs short story, but it wasn’t fun to read. It was… sad. Almost all of the stories are… sad. And yes, there is death and loss and unfairness, and the disillusionment of youth, and the pitfalls of aging… but this book’s sadness went beyond the sad plot points. The tone of the whole thing was sad. It was… kind of a bummer.

But it was interesting. And unexpected. (PowerPoint… for reals) And it left me wanting more. 

It was like a cubist painting. All the parts are fascinating. The way they are layered onto one another is intellectually stimulating. But… you might prefer to have something else on your bedroom wall.

Or, you might want the joined disjointed, the partial puzzle, the bits and pieces of these people’s lives. 

I think, someday, I will need to read it again.

Feel free to tell me what you think in the comments or send me an email.

Reminder of the ASPECT Method.

A Atmosphere: How did it make me feel? What was the world like? This might include overall tone.

S Style: What was the writing style like? Simplistic or sophisticated? Clunky or beautiful?

P Plot/Pace: Was it engaging? Were there holes? Did it feel too rushed or too long?

E Enjoyment: Was it a chore to finish or compelling enough that I picked it over other fun activities?

C Characters: Were they believable, sympathetic, interesting?

T This: Why did I read *This* book?

Published by kayliametcalfe

Queer,loudmouth,skeptical-agnostic-pagan,book addict,coffee lover,wine drinker, SAHM,writer,editor,producer,podcaster. -She/her

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