A Visit from the Goon Squad was my book club’s pick for November. The book and its author, Jennifer Egan, have garnered a great deal of attention in the last year, and three months after finishing the book, I’m still on the fence as to whether or not it’s deserved.
I don’t know that I would have gotten through this book had I not had the Kindle with me when I was stuck in a very long line at a blood drive. I’m glad I was stuck in that line, however, as it gave me enough time to really get hooked on the story, if not on the characters themselves.
I can say definitively that Egan is a master storyteller. A Visit from the Goon Squad weaves in and out of time, with a number of stories told in layers, folding and unfolding onto themselves. The reader encounters characters at different points in their lives – Benny, the record producer, is seen as a middle-aged wash-up, an energetic rocker at the beginning of his music career, a husband cuckolded by his wife’s tennis game, a rock legend. His mentor is a dirty old man seducing teenaged girls, a middle-aged father taking his children and his young girlfriend on a safari, a dying man surrounded by the now-middle-aged girls of his youth. His protégé is a kleptomaniac 30-something, a college student losing her closeted best friend, a mother making art from her stolen treasures. Each of these stories – episodes – windows of time is deftly, though not always gracefully, presented, surrounded by music and an indelible scene, whether it is the Bay area in the 70s, New York in the early 90s, full of optimism, or New York in the near future, recovering but not recovered from 9/11.
I wish I’d written this review closer to finishing the book – or to my book club’s discussion – as there are aspects of it that we found problematic that I’ve since forgotten. Some of the female characters felt flat in comparison to the nuances of the male characters. Some of the scenes feel like they were lifted from a Palahniuk or Coupland novel – a compliment, but also a complaint (see my review of Then We Came to the End).
I finished the book on my friends’ couch in mid-November. We were watching their cats while they were out of town getting married, and I was combating a hangover from the previous night’s 90s dance party. I’m willing to allow that the latter may have unduly influenced my reaction to the ‘enhanced’ chapter, in which we encounter the adolescent son of the former kleptomaniac. Her son has become obsessed with the pauses in pop music, and in trying to explain their significance to his father, fails to say all the things he really means to say. Or rather, he says all the things he is feeling, but his dad only hears the (exasperating) parts about the rests. And in that exchange lies the weight of the book, the way we measure the passage of time, all of the things we want to say but can’t, all of the things we try to say but fail to communicate, all of the moments in time that slip through our fingers.