Krok Zero's Reviews > A Visit from the Goon Squad

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
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Jan 13, 11

bookshelves: summer-2010
Read in August, 2010

Probably not Egan's fault that I didn't love this one -- I'm starting to think it's impossible for me to get behind any novel with this kind of pointillist structure. Maybe I'm more aesthetically conservative than I thought I was, because this year I've read two ecstatically praised novels that use this piecemeal approach (the other being David Mitchell's Ghostwritten) and found it difficult to give a fuck about either of 'em. The idea, I guess, is that the individual fragments add up to a greater thematic or narrative gestalt that can be observed by standing further away. But this distance seems to me antithetical to the purpose of the novel, which is supposed to be all about close engagement with a set of imagined lives and/or events. Not that I want to be prescriptive about this sort of thing, or even use phrases like "the purpose of the novel," because what do I know? But it just feels too often like a case of literary ADD. Mike Reynolds says Goon Squad is "definitely a novel," but doth he protest too much? The fact that Mike even feels compelled to make this assertion tells you that it is not "definitely" anything. (Gives me an idea for the paperback: instead of the customary "A Novel" ID underneath the title, Knopf should go with "Definitely A Novel.") This is really a story collection, I think, and I'm vaguely perturbed by the trend of slapping the "novel" label on interrelated story cycles; if they were first published today, would In Our Time or Winesburg, Ohio be pushed as novels? I'm all for the malleability of forms, but I'm also for truth in advertising. So I dunno.

And so, like any story collection, some of the stuff in Goon Squad is better than some of the other stuff -- though Egan's crisp, satisfying prose can be found throughout. Like everyone else, I loved the powerpoint chapter, excerpts from a 12-year-old girl's "slide journal," as moving as it is formally innovative. Also wonderful is the first-person account by a David Foster Wallace-esque journalist of a celebrity interview gone horribly awry. But another piece, co-starring the same celebrity, struck me as so wildly implausible that I kept waiting for it to be revealed as a fiction-within-the-fiction (no such luck); and an Almost Famous-ish section about rockin' '70s teenagers was hideously over-voiced, a fault that also occasionally tripped up Egan's otherwise deeply entertaining The Keep. It's like, I know you want to create a convincing teen-girl voice, but replacing the verb "to say" with the verb "to go" in every single instance of that verb just comes off as a distracting authorial contrivance. And some of the units, like one involving an African safari (which Mike cites as one of his favorites) might have really worked for me in the context of a proper story collection, but in the context of a novel -- with all its attendant expectations, even in non-linear fragment form -- it felt inessential. So labels do matter, I think, and this book has the wrong label. But of course there is plenty of wonderful writing here, many juicy sentences of wit and insight and elegance that jolted me out of my macro-disappointment; I'm still on Team Egan, and I appreciate her continuing efforts to engage meaningfully with the more disconcertingly salient aspects of contemporary culture. Sometimes the strings show a little too much -- the final chapter (which I basically like) strays perilously close to essayism, and doesn't seem to understand how text messaging works -- but I'm down with any writer these days who tries to chronicle The Way We Live Now without being a dick about it.

Update: I'm officially the only person who does not love this book, so I am floating to assert my independence. Shine on, you crazy me.
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Comments (showing 1-22 of 22) (22 new)

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message 1: by Paul (new)

Paul Cracking review.


Joel just give it a 4th star. no one will know but you and me.


Krok Zero No! I have Major Reservations about it!


message 4: by Joel (last edited Jan 13, 2011 08:29PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Joel pffff. i say it gets extra points for overcoming a structure i almost always hate. except i really like cloud atlas so far so maybe my problem is really just with nicole krauss and the imperfectionists dude.


Krok Zero As I say in the review I might have liked it more if I'd approached it as a short story collection. It's good writing, but I'm just not feeling the superawesomeness that you guys are getting from it. It didn't move me at all.


Krok Zero P.S. I loved Look at Me a lot, so read that one and then eat your five stars for the inferior Goon Squad.


Joel maybe you find your life too fulfilling. don't you have shattered dreams?


Joel like, for example, the dream of writing a review that gets 102 votes?


Krok Zero My dreams are so shattered that I haven't even dreamed them yet. I am definitely susceptible to the kind of thing that Egan was trying to do, I just think the structure was a hindrance to it. Except the powerpoint chapter, which was hard not to love.


message 10: by Eddie (new)

Eddie Thanks for helping me make the decision to put this book down. With all the awesome reviews, I was going to feel bad for doing so. After reading your review—not so fucking much anymore. Awesome review, btw.


Celeste Spooky. I said the same thing about truth in advertising and short story collections in my review. I promise it was just us thinking alike! Glad to see I'm not the only one who isn't in love with this book.


Stephen M Because of this review, I now know what the words "pointillist" and "gestalt" mean. thank you. Great review too, I felt similarly.


Krok Zero Stephen wrote: "Because of this review, I now know what the words "pointillist" and "gestalt" mean. thank you. Great review too, I felt similarly."

Thanks, but I worry about your educational background if you had to learn those words from me!

Oh, wait, I see you are only 19. Worry redacted.


Stephen M Haha, yeah. There are some serious gaps in my vocabulary, even though I feel I have a fairly decent one. (i.e. me reading Infinite Jest with a dictionary and a pen scratching my head every couple of pages.)


Swiftyjess Your review is exactly how I'd describe it, too. Finally!


message 16: by M (last edited Jul 28, 2011 02:57AM) (new)

M F It's interesting that I recognized much of the writing here from other places - published as short stories. My feeling is that she bundled them together and the consequence is this book - the form of which is rationalized as a "concept album" (in Eagan's description) but really is a cut-and-paste novel whose concept arrived well after the fact of it it's actual conception. Your review is right on.

I keep reading her, but I'm no longer convinced, Pulitzer notwithstanding, that she's actually a very good writer- her books always seem to fall apart about 50 pages in, and just turn into a kind of shopping list of observations.


Rebecca Actually, my reaction was almost exactly the same. Fortunately, you are capable of intelligently putting those thoughts on paper (so to speak). I, on the other hand, just quirked an eyebrow, mentally shrugged, and thought, "Meh, what's the fuss?". But, you know, substantively the same. Ha.


Joshua Nomen-Mutatio ...because I do like any review that kicks Mike Reynolds in the ballz. (They have a 'z' when I'm not serious about what I just said.)


message 19: by KFed (new) - rated it 4 stars

KFed Update: you're not the only person who didn't like this. I've been cracking up at the number of people who've used this as a prime example of the decay of the Pulitzers in recent years in order to explain why we shouldn't care about no winner this year. Poor Jenny.


Kristen Link I wish I would have read your review before I read the book. I am certain I would have enjoyed it more approaching it as a collection of short stories. good insight.


Laura Delaney Great review. I also struggled with the format while appreciating the quality of her prose.


Rachel Rancilio I struggled with this book too and dragged myself thru it by counting down the number of pages I had left. You are not alone in your less than 4 star review....


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