sarah gilbert's Reviews > A Visit from the Goon Squad

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
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's review
Mar 07, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: books-i-own-signed, writers-craft-book-group

Jennifer Egan chose the chapter from Dolly's perspective to read aloud at the AWP conference, and though I knew vaguely this was a book about rock and knew it had a chapter done entirely in PowerPoint, the PR agent to a homicidal dictator was my first exposure to the story. It was an unusual entry point, both telling and murky, funny and deeply desperate.

I read the entire book flying home from the conference two days later -- in a four- or five-hour rush. It's the sort of book that you read quickly and then must slow down and re-read several paragraphs and sections, flipping back to catch other mentions of a character (haven't I heard "Lulu" before?), or to recount in your memory the list of souvenirs Sasha carries with her everywhere. A tiny gold pagoda, a long sea shell, and what? The others change throughout the book, and you want to know more. You are, in Egan's books, always looking for meaning and rhythm and refrain. You are always looking for the threads to follow and make sense of the whole narrative.

I love them, deeply and so much that I spent the whole PowerPoint chapter, in my window seat on the flight from Albuquerque to Portland, crying, having to wipe my prodigious tears away with my scarf. I must admit her mastery at voice and point of view and the kind of "ambitious fiction" I had been talking about only the day before, so many characters that the Goodreads librarian team must be rather overwhelmed keeping up with them all. And her stunning ability to bring each and every one of these dozens of characters to that breaking point between utter despair and possible hope and redemption (with plenty of comedy and drugs along the way) -- it's uncanny, it's a masterwork.

And yet I'm often left wanting a little more. More hope, without the jaded eye-rolling of her future visions (I want exactly what we get in the PowerPoint chapter, but what we don't get so much in the whole "Pointers" concept -- despite the moments of analog breakthrough), more resolution -- I got what happened between Bennie and Stephanie, but I wanted to follow her thread a little farther, not leave her there kneeling on the lawn for all forevers; I saw that Chris got to be mentioned again by Lulu at the end, but I wanted to see what happened to him -- more explanation. Just a little more, mind you, a few more sentences or just a peek into the progeny of the pagoda and the sea shell and what, exactly, happened between Mindy and the warrior/chauffeur. I'm probably asking too much; Egan gets to pick and tell me what will happen to some characters far into the future, but others are just left to spin and wander in my imagination.

Also, with so many characters (and of course a long time span), Egan seems only too willing to kill a bunch of them off. I might not mind if the deaths weren't so tragic; if they didn't wound everyone in their wake quite so much. If they didn't take a little of my love with them. For each one who died had convinced me to love him, first, and mourning so many loved ones' deaths in the space of two plane rides is not an easy thing.

No wonder I cried at PowerPoint slides.

At last I need to ponder something about this book, and that is the nine-year-olds. I was again and again struck (probably because my own oldest son is nine) that the child characters are often portrayed at age nine, and wonder how Egan chose that age -- I can answer for my own son, that at this age they go through some sort of wonderful transformation that allows them to be at once both vastly mature and witty and yet still retain their childish tendency to curl up into bed with you, to be afraid of monsters and dark, to play imaginary games with their little siblings and understand literature and politics -- but I wonder what it is for Egan. Maybe I already know, maybe it's just that, that point at which one can become an adult who despairs or one who hopes; where faith in family institutions, society, and love is tested most rigorously -- it either holds up, or it doesn't, and that changes everything, forever.
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