Megha's Reviews > A Visit from the Goon Squad

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
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Aug 22, 11

bookshelves: its-not-you-its-me, reviews
Read in August, 2011

Time is a goon? Not necessarily, I think.

( First of all, I think I may be too un-American to really get this book. The dreams, hopes, expectations, definition of a happy and content life for most Indians are entirely different from all of Egan's characters. These stories won't fit in an Indian context. This may be a reason why this book didn't speak to me the same way as it did to many other readers. )

I can't help feeling that at least some of Egan's characters were responsible for wrecking their own lives. They just didn't make an honest attempt to build livable lives for themselves. Yeah sure, circumstances don't always work in one's favor. But how our lives shape up also depends on the numerous big and small choices we make for ourselves. It also depends on people around us because our lives are cross-wired with many others. It is not right to blame time and luck for everything that goes wrong. True, unfortunate circumstances can at times push one in a dark corner, for none of their own fault. Some people do have worse luck than most others. But one cannot keep using that as an excuse for every wrong step they take. At some point they have to stop grieving, pull their lives together and do the best they can with whatever cards they have been dealt. Whatever happened to time is the best healer?
Times do change. But the change is not necessarily bad. Not for everyone, at least. Some people get rude shocks, some others hit upon unexpectedly good fortune. It works both ways. We gain something new, we leave something behind. We learn to live with the flow of the time. It is one thing to have hopes and ambitions, and plan things out for future. But it is too much to expect for time to follow our rhythms and pauses and ensure that our plans are executed perfectly. No matter what Paulo Coelho says, the universe may not actually be conspiring to make every single person's wishes come true.

Another of Egan's concerns is regarding rapidly changing lifestyle, ways of communication and our dependence on technology. Yes, that is happening alright. Don't we all know it! And we also know that similar things have been happening for generations. My parents grew up without TV or (any kind of) phone. Surely they didn't expect to see a day when smart-phones and laptops will begin to be just as essential possessions as a toothbrush. Likewise, we can't know what exactly the world around us will be like when we are a generation older. Some changes will make things easier, others will give rise to anxieties. And again, we will learn to live with the times. People always have.

One more reason why Egan's thoughts didn't come across very well is that her theme had to constantly vie for attention with her stylized structure. I did really like her use of non-linear time-line and kaleidoscopic manner of presenting certain pieces of the character's lives. But the novel's form also felt like she had just come out of week-long writing workshop and was eager to show off every single style she had learnt.

However, I must say, this book is not merely popular, it also has a literary gene in it.
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Comments (showing 1-34 of 34) (34 new)

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Stephen M "First of all, I think I may be too un-American to really get this book."

That concerns me, I think books should speak to human universals. Sure, certain books work better within the context of certain cultures, but we are all experiencing life. I don't maybe that is just me. I think if the book doesn't speak to you, it might be the author's fault of not providing characters that grab the readers emotions. Even if we don't understand the specific customs, the underlying emotion and human struggle should grab us.


message 2: by Megha (last edited Aug 08, 2011 11:01PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Megha I agree with what you say, But sometimes it can be difficult for someone to identify with another person's problems due to differences in lifestyle. The stories of these characters and almost all of the problems they face are so far removed from anything I have experienced or seen in India. The everyday worries and concerns of most people in India are very different. From that perspective, I sometimes felt that these characters were just creating problems for themselves or finding reasons to be unhappy, when they could have been doing just fine.


Stephen M I see, well I felt the same way at times. Despite being from the united states and playing in a few bands myself, I found a lot of the music industry material to draw more from "VH1: Behind the Music" specials, and less (what I felt to be) real life. Have you read any Jonathan Franzen? I keep drawing comparison's between Egan and him but the other "problems" of the character's lives in this are very similar to The Corrections.


Megha Yeah, I saw that you mentioned Franzen in you review. Franzen has been on my radar (only vaguely though), I will get his book sometime. Which is better, Corrections or Freedom?


Stephen M CORRECTIONS!


Stephen M That could be unfair though, considering I haven't even finished Freedom. But, if you want to skip a whole lot of preoccupation with politics and stick with what (I feel) Franzen does best, then go with Corrections for its wonderful character development.


Megha Stephen wrote: "That could be unfair though, considering I haven't even finished Freedom. But, if you want to skip a whole lot of preoccupation with politics and stick with what (I feel) Franzen does best, then go..."

But you have read far enough to have an opinion, unless he pulls some really neat trick towards the end.
Corrections goes on my to-read list.


Nelly So interesting to read the comparisons between Franzen and Egan as I happen to have read Goon Squad right after reading Freedom and thought the characters seemed quite similar. There seems to be a trend right now in American fiction--a preoccupation with dysfunctional, pathetic characters! I would recommend both Corrections and Freedom. Corrections will turn you into a nervous wreck if you internalize the charcters too much the way I did. Just a warning :-)


Megha Nelly wrote: "I would recommend both Corrections and Freedom. Corrections will turn you into a nervous wreck if you internalize the charcters too much the way I did. Just a warning :-) "

I do like to be able to connect with the characters. If Franzen's writing can make one feel nervous, that's probably some good writing.


Kinga I agree that most of the problems the characters created themselves and the time wasn't to blame. I tihnk it was more about that one day you realise you have run out of time to fix things. And it makes me sad.

I didn't grow up in America or any Western country, so technically those problems were not my own but this sadness over passing time spoke to me.


message 11: by Megha (last edited Aug 10, 2011 03:12AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Megha Kinga wrote: "I didn't grow up in America or any Western country, so technically those problems were not my own but this sadness over passing time spoke to me. "

The way things work in a middle-class Indian society is that most people find their footing pretty soon after completing their education. They hold on to a steady job, get married by a certain age. Often the job is not something they are passionate about but something that pays their bills. Once they have that they lead a stable (often mundane and uneventful) life.
Hence, I don't see them being in a similar position as this book's characters who sometimes seem to be lost, even at a mature age.

I felt sympathy for the characters up to the point that their lives didn't turn out as they had expected. Making one's dreams come true is not an easy thing after all. But in-spite of that, they didn't have to make a mess of their lives. In the least, they could have settled for simple, uneventful lives.

Also, this short story like format makes it a little difficult for me to bond with the characters.
Overall, I did like more than few of the stories, but the theme didn't quite get through to me.


Kinga I think that's similar in Poland.
I left when I was 27, most of my friends wer already married with kids, morgages, and some mind numbing office jobs.

I felt like i was left behind becuase I just couldn't do any of these things. That was the reason I moved to London. Because here when I say that I want to be a writer people don't look at me as if I announced that I eat babies.

I must say I am prone to making a mess of my life, so maybe that's why I could relate. Anytime I get a normal job, normal relatioship and things are settling down I need to go and wreck it all. I think some people just have this gene.


Megha Kinga wrote: "Because here when I say that I want to be a writer people don't look at me as if I announced that I eat babies."

Ha ha, exactly. Anyone saying I want to be a cricketer/painter/dancer etc. is just laughed off. We are conditioned not to take such thoughts seriously. And I don't see this attitude changing anytime soon.

"I must say I am prone to making a mess of my life.."

I am sure all of us have some mess in our lives, that's normal.

All the best with your writing!


message 14: by K.D. (new) - rated it 2 stars

K.D. Absolutely mp, I share many of the points you raised. I rated this 2 stars too. Great minds think alike! :)


message 15: by Megha (last edited Aug 11, 2011 10:42AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Megha K.D. wrote: "mp, I share many of the points you raised. I rated this 2 stars too. Great minds think alike! :)"

ha ha, .

I see that you too mention a bit about cultural differences, good to see that I am not the only one with such doubts.


message 16: by K.D. (new) - rated it 2 stars

K.D. Absolutely But it is really not a bad book. If it were not a Pulitzer winner and I just happened to stumble with it in a second-hand bookshoppe, I would have rated it 3-4 stars and say to myself that I "discovered" a great unknown author. I think the element of failed (high)expectations pulled the rating for me to 2.


Megha I agree, this is not a bad book. I even felt bad about giving it 2 stars, but 3 stars don't seem right either. I liked many of the stories, I liked her writing in several places. I probably would have enjoyed this more as a short-story collection.
And, of course, hype ruins everything.


Nelly I went to hear Egan do a reading a week before she won the Pulitzer. She was doing a benefit reading for an organization that promotes literacy in underserved communities. I had never heard of her and read Good Squad before the reading so I could appreciate what she was saying a bit more. She spoke eloquently about her writing, explaining that she rarely draws on her own experiences and, instead, prefers to research characters wholly different from herself. After hearing her speak, I read her other novels. I think The Invisible Circus is a better book because it seems less self-conscious and more heartfelt. The Keep is engaging but is similar to Goon Squad in what seems like an overt attempt to be clever. I have to say I was shocked when I found out she won for Goon Squad. I love her books but......


Megha Nelly, thanks for the tip about The Invisible Circus. She is a fine writer, it will be good to read an unpretentious work of hers.


message 20: by Alan (new)

Alan I'm confused now - so many people rate this book, but have now come across one or two dissenters. I'll probably read it in a year or so when the hoo-hah has died down.


Megha Alan wrote: "I'm confused now - so many people rate this book, but have now come across one or two dissenters. I'll probably read it in a year or so when the hoo-hah has died down."

I have mixed feelings about it. I liked it in some ways. But I feel it would have worked better for me as a simple novel/short-story collection. The structure she uses doesn't lend itself naturally to the book and the machinery behind it is not so invisible.


message 22: by Ian (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ian Paganus mp wrote: "I can't help feeling that at least some of Egan's characters were responsible for wrecking their own lives. They just didn't make an honest attempt to build livable lives for themselves."


In the absence of a genuine collective culture, Western freedom is the constitutional right to fuck up your own life with total impunity (and write about it).


Megha Ian wrote: "In the absence of a genuine collective culture, Western freedom is the constitutional right to fuck up your own life with total impunity (and write about it). "

Ha ha. Yes, I can see that.
So I guess Egan's point here might have been that freedom is over-rated.


message 24: by Ian (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ian Paganus I suppose what I was thinking about in the background is the distinction between negative freedom (freedom "from" something) and positive freedom (freedom "to" do something).

If we have negative freedom (i.e., nothing interferes with our personal freedom), it doesn't mean that we actually get off our bums and "do" anything personally or socially constructive with our freedom.

The temptation is to do something destructive or self-destructive.

To that extent, freedom, at least negative freedom, is over-rated.


Megha Yes, that is kind of what I had in mind too. Thanks Ian for expressing the thought nicely. In the context of this book, negative freedom is highlighted more than positive use of freedom.


message 26: by Ian (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ian Paganus Thanks, mp, I'll keep your thoughts in mind when I read it (soon, I hope).


Aldrin I adore this book, but I appreciate how you articulated your gripes with it. I especially like your dig at Paulo Coelho. There's a pseudo-profound author if I ever read one.


message 28: by Megha (last edited Aug 30, 2011 04:49PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Megha Thanks Aldrin. Coelho and Egan seem to have opposite views on a few things. I will probably prefer something of a middle ground to either of these views.


Kaushik She wrote a story about a bunch of people whose life does not turn out to be all okay. I am sure, even in the Indian context, there are hundreds of people, many who would be labelled by the society as successful, who are unhappy/ whose lives have not turned out the way they wanted it to.

I really loved the short-story format to tell a novel. I felt it worked really well for Sasha, but I did not get enough of a feel for Bennie. The Africa chapter was something!

It was the first time I read something like this (I got this book because of the power-point chapter, but felt that it was too gimmicky after reading it, and I also had trouble reading the chapter "out of body". It put me to sleep).


message 30: by Megha (last edited Jun 25, 2012 05:03PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Megha Kaushik wrote: "She wrote a story about a bunch of people whose life does not turn out to be all okay. I am sure, even in the Indian context, there are hundreds of people, many who would be labelled by the societ..."

Sure, people whose lives don't turn out the way they expected are everywhere. What I am saying is people's expectations from life are different in different cultures/societies.
If you look at an average middle-class family in India, what they want from life is a stable job, to be able to provide for their families, bring up their kids and ensure a secure future for them. How many people do you see dedicating their lives to becoming, say, an actor/musician/cricketer etc. When a kid talks about becoming Tendulkar one day, isn't that just laughed off? We are taught that dreams like these are merely dreams.

That being said, I have liked several books where I had nothing in common with any of the characters. So really the main issue I had with this book is that the writing didn't click with me. If I consider these stories individually, and forget about the central theme of the book, I did like some of the stories.

Like I said in the review : "But the novel's form also felt like she had just come out of week-long writing workshop and was eager to show off every single style she had learnt." I wish all authors would write in a style that comes naturally to them and not try to fake an accent.


Megha Kaushik wrote: "She wrote a story about a bunch of people whose life does not turn out to be all okay. I am sure, even in the Indian context, there are hundreds of people, many who would be labelled by the societ..."

Could you briefly remind me what the 'out of body' chapter was about - was it the one where a character jumps in a cold river?


Kaushik Megha wrote: "Kaushik wrote: "She wrote a story about a bunch of people whose life does not turn out to be all okay. I am sure, even in the Indian context, there are hundreds of people, many who would be labell..."

"We are taught that dreams like these are merely dreams". That to me is really sad... but then, now that an cricketing or a copywriting or some other similarly non-engineering/IT careers are also able to provide for your family, bring up kids etc etc, there are people who are pursuing their dreams!

Ya, it was the one in which a guy jumps into a cold river.


message 33: by Ema (new) - rated it 2 stars

Ema I'm glad I've found one articulated review that shares my view on this novel. I thought too that the social and cultural differences prevented me from enjoying this book. There were other reasons, too, but I can't really explain them - it ultimately gets down to feeling. My feeling while reading. I didn't have a good feeling and emotional response while reading this. I can totally handle sadness (The Heart is a Lonely Hunter), but here everything felt very modern (plot, writing style). I wonder now if I'm not able to enjoy modern narrative; could it be that I'm stuck with traditional? Jonathan Franzen will be a further test for that.


message 34: by Megha (last edited Sep 18, 2013 10:58AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Megha Ema wrote: "I'm glad I've found one articulated review that shares my view on this novel. I thought too that the social and cultural differences prevented me from enjoying this book. There were other reasons, ..."

Thanks Ema. I am right there with you about emotional response to Egan's writing. It kept me at an arm's distance the entire time. It felt more focused on style.


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