Welcome to my self-indulgent location for the stories (good and bad) that I can't prevent myself from writing. All comments and criticisms welcome. I post on Tuesdays and Saturdays.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Review: A Visit from the Goon Squad

A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan, got mixed reviews from some of my cohorts on GoodReads, so I was intrigued when GoodReads decided to start their Book Club Challenge (which, btw, I hadn't heard about before this book, but I hope they continue it with other selections). If you're interested, the Book Club Challenge runs through the end of July, so there's still time to sign up.

The Blurb (from GoodReads):
Bennie is an aging former punk rocker and record executive. Sasha is the passionate, troubled young woman he employs. Here Jennifer Egan brilliantly reveals their pasts, along with the inner lives of a host of other characters whose paths intersect with theirs. With music pulsing on every page, A Visit from the Goon Squad is a startling, exhilarating novel of self-destruction and redemption.

Doesn't really tell you a whole lot, does it? And, I promise you, this blurb does not prepare you for the experience.

Author Jennifer Egan
Photo courtesy of SFGate.com
The basic concept of the book follows the two characters through time and around the world in their lives, yes. What the blurb doesn't tell you is that each story is told in a different point of view (at least two are 1st person, neither of which are from Bennie or Sasha's perspective, one in second person, and a myriad of 3rd person close narratives), only two of which directly highlight Bennie and Sasha (chapters 2 and 1, respectively). Other stories deal with these two "main" characters through tangential connects or sheer-chance encounters, though they all serve to tell the stories of these two characters in a non-traditional sense.

The question that people keep posing, though, is: Is it really a novel? Or is it a collection of short stories?

In my not-so-humble opinion, I'm going to go out on a limb and call it a novel. I really believe it is, though it stretches the boundaries of what the traditional definition entails. All the stories revolve around either Sasha or Bennie. The exceptions are, perhaps, chapters 4 and 5, in which I find no clear, direct connection, but only a tangential (in the mathematical sense of touching at one point, not in the conversational sense in which something is an off-shoot) way.

The way Egan weaves the individual stories, though, made me want to keep reading despite the initial disjunction between the stories. I had been forewarned about this apparent disunity by reading my friends' reviews on GoodReads, so I felt prepared, and I think this helped in my appreciation of the offering. If I had gone in to reading this without that knowledge, I might have been irritated by it as well.

Photo courtesy of Wiki Commons
In an interview, Egan compares the story concepts to a music album—an apt structural comparison given the subject nature behind the stories. Thirteen "tracks" that all come together to make a whole. In buying an album, we as listeners do not expect each song to have the same subject, or the same tempo, or even the same singer in the case of, say, the Beatles. Yet we feel the wholeness of the album. In this same way, Egan has compiled her stories, each individual in their own rights, which together construct a complete piece.

My only real complaint about the book is about how the stories stack together. I love the increased pace that runs throughout the book, which I believe culminates in chapter 12 "Great Rock and Roll Pauses". This chapter is powerful, not only in its plot and characters and emotional thread, but also in how it's presented: it's a visual narrative, created as a slide show diary entry from the POV of Sasha's daughter. This is, in fact, my favorite story of the book (with chapter 10, "Out of Body", as a close second). My complaint actually stems from the final story, which, after such a powerful chapter 12, seems to fall flat. I didn't feel the emotional resonance that had echoed through each of the previous stories, raising to concert levels in chapter 12. Perhaps my eardrums couldn't atune themselves to the acoustic guitar of chapter 13 after the amplified light show. Either way, it felt anti-climactic at best, and left an unsavory residue to associate with the book as a whole.

Bummer, because, otherwise, I really loved the book.

The bottom line: Read this book. Be prepared for a non-traditional novel experience. And let yourself be carried along for the ride. It's worth it.

What other non-traditionally structured novels have you read?


Jessica Bell said...

Wow! This REALLY sounds like my cup of tea. Awesome. I'm so purchasing this!

Jan Morrison said...

I'm definitely going to read this and I'm going to suggest it to my writing pal, Gwen, who has a collection of linked short stories that I think are a novel too. We'll see - very exciting. I love the notion of a novel being stretched -why not? Nothing is sacred in my books.

Talli Roland said...

This sounds fantastic! I love it when books try different things.

Jemi Fraser said...

How cool is that! I hadn't heard of this one yet. Like you, I'd want to be prepared for the new structure before I read it, but I'm intrigued.

Theresa Milstein said...

I think the way a book gets towards the end is the last taste left in our mouth. If it's lackluster, and then picks up, we give it more credit. But if it's the other way around, it's a bigger disappointment.

I read The Red Garden, which was a collection of short stories with a thread of the same town and some of the same offspring over a long period of time. When I finished it, I felt like I'd read a novel.

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