Pamela's Reviews > A Visit from the Goon Squad

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
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Nov 16, 2011

did not like it
Read from November 16 to December 01, 2011

Somebody help me out here. Quick!

This--this??--won the '11 Pulitzer for fiction?

Why?

Let's back up here. I read. A lot. Novels, short fiction, poetry...Okay, I've made my point.

And, importantly (I think), I'm what I call a generous reader: I'm not wedded to any particular style, tone, subject matter, time frame, point of view, and so on, in fiction. I hang in with a book well past the point when many readers have moved on, hoping to become involved, moved, transported. I don't insist in being 'grabbed' on the first page, or in the first chapter; I'm willing to take my time with a book, and let it grow, slowly, on me.

But this? THIS won all those lovely prizes?

Yup.

But, again, why? What do people hear in this novel? I felt, and I did read it in its entirety, that I was coasting on a long train, traveling across very flat terrain, hitting, every so often, a bump or a rise or a bit of speed--and then subsiding. And I returned to that flat, uneventful, tedious journey each time, with no break.

Depth. Richly developed characters. Strength and beauty of language. Intelligent thematic material. And, most important, a voice the reader grows to love, to trust, to immerse herself (himself) within. Sure, all the foregoing might sound cheesy, but it's the stuff of good literature. (Note, we haven't even strayed into that hallowed category of 'great' literature.)

All that is lacking. The best chapter is the very first, when Sasha's story begins and holds some real interest. But, alas, it's downhill from there.

Take, for example, Sasha's story. What is it? Can you retell it?

We see her in Chapter One, torn and conflicted, stealing compulsively, confiding in a shrink. Okay, not bad, pretty good even; we want to know more...But when do we encounter her again? Later, we meet her again, but through Bennie's eyes, and he doesn't have much to say about her. Then, toward the end of the novel, we meet her again, through her uncle's point of view, in Milan, as an older teenager. And she is referenced, by her daughter, in the 'power point' chapter.

But do we ever hear from Sasha again, through her own words, through her point of view? No. And, what we hear from others, is, although sometimes interesting, without depth. And this is, from my reading, how all of the characters are handled. They remain unreal, unrealized, without depth and power.

Paper characters.

I'm going to go out on a limb here, knowing full well that I'm suggesting changes to a novel that has won an impressive roster of awards, that when a writer writes a novel containing many characters, which, of course, is not at all unusual, that such novels are most meaningful when one, or a handful, of the numerous characters are treated as primary, and accorded more weight, detail, moments, and exploration.

Otherwise, all we're left with, as readers, is a motley crew of fumbling, bumbling souls to which we all, perhaps, can in one or another way relate, but so what? What have we learned? Where have we traveled?

Nowhere.

What does all this say about those illustrious folks (and who are they, anyway?) who pick the winners of the prizes? With all the amazing writing being produced in the United States right now, why did they chose this for their award?

One more thing: I did enjoy the so-called 'modern' chapter structured like a power point presentation. It's clever, cute, and moving. But it, paradoxically, dates the novel; nothing dates a piece of art work more than attempting to MAKE it sound au current by peppering it with references to current technology.

Reaching the end of a novel should give one pause, make one reflect, distress one to be 'leaving the world' and the people of the novel. I've finished this with a sense of narrow escape and relief.

And a lot of confusion.

Time to return to the stack of authors waiting for their turn.

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