Monday, February 7, 2011

Review — A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Synopsis (via Goodreads): Jennifer Egan’s spellbinding new work circles Bennie Salazar, an aging former punk rocker and record executive, and Sasha, the passionate, troubled young woman he employs. Bennie and Sasha never discover each other’s pasts, but the reader does, in intimate detail, along with the secret lives of a host of other people whose paths intersect with theirs in the San Francisco 1970s music scene, the demimonde of Naples, New York at many points along the way from the pre-Internet nineties to a postwar future, and on a catastrophic safari into the heart of Africa. We meet Lou, Bennie’s charismatic, careless mentor; Scotty, the young musician who slipped off the grid; the uncle facing a failed marriage who goes in search of seventeen-year-old Sasha when she disappears into Italy; and the therapist on whose couch she dissects darker compulsions.

A Visit from the Goon Squad is a book about time, survival, and the electrifying sparks ignited at the seams of our lives by colliding destinies. Sly, surprising, exhilarating work from one of our boldest writers.

Review:  “Time is a goon.”  That’s the saying, isn’t it?  Maybe not, but it doesn’t mean it’s not true however you interpret it.  Egan’s novel is more a narrative web than any kind of linear story.  The web extends from Bennie Salazar and through him we meet a whole host of other characters, some directly related to him, some that aren’t.  Each chapter jumps in time in what I want to call “past, present, and future” but, really, they are all the present. 

At first A Visit From the Good Squad reminded me of Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists, but where I found Rachman’s book to be a little depressing, I was strangely inspired by Egan’s use of multiple points of view and non-linear storytelling. We have a wide array of narrators, but I never felt pulled in different directions or confused. I realize now that while it’s not linear storytelling, it is an emotionally linear story.

Each chapter feels like it could be an entirely different book, but they all work together incredibly well.  There’s a chapter that’s told entirely in graphs and charts and I think that might have been the most emotionally affecting chapter in the entire book.

Not every chapter works perfectly.  The chapter staring “LaDoll” felt a bit out of place in the greater picture, though it was engrossing in it’s own right.  Ted’s chapter wasn’t my favorite, though I did like the chance to see Sasha as a teenager.  Egan uses a variety of devices throughout the book, from the charts, like I mentioned, to an omniscient narrator who sees characters future’s while we’re in their present, and she even uses the dreaded second person.  And it actually works.  That kind of literary device could take you out of the narrative, but I didn’t even realize I was reading in the second person until a few pages into the chapter.

As I finished Goon Squad, I felt the need to sit back and have a few minutes of reflection, something that doesn’t happen often, sadly. I feel like I’m still trying to work this one out, sort out all my thoughts and feelings. Egan makes you think about time, family, friends, music, regrets, and so much more in such an emotional, visceral way.  A Visit From the Goon Squad is one I know I will definitely visit again and again, each time taking away something different.  There’s something sad, hopeful, and beautiful about this novel and I really can’t recommend it enough. 

Lit Snit Verdict: A

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