Jennifer Egan‘s novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, is like going to a concert that starts strong, but then loses the beat, stops being music and becomes a decision: stay or walk out? It can be a dilemma. There’s the price of admission, combined with the foolish hope things will improve versus wasting time, and disappointment. In my experience, there’s no real payoff in sticking around. I have a harder time quitting novels, especially when I’m past the halfway point. A Visit from the Goon Squad introduces two interesting characters that seem to be the focus of the novel, but then gets lost along the way as perspectives and time shift in ways that become less meaningful.
The novel begins with Sasha, a beautiful woman who’s a kleptomaniac, and then transitions to Bennie, her former boss and music industry executive. From there the novel jumps back to Bennie’s teenage years, then progresses in time, but remains in the past from Bennie’s chapter, let’s call it the near-past, and focuses on a teenage friend of Bennie’s who has tracked him down.
Next, we stay in the past and explore the dissolution of Bennie’s marriage from his, at-some-point-in-the-future ex-wife. Ex-wife in the making? This chapter also showcases changes in the lead singer of “The Conduits,” the band Bennie first produced which made him famous. The lead man is now a bloated, drugged out loser planning a “suicide tour” as his comeback and probable death. Bennie’s brother-in-law is also introduced in this chapter as a washed-up reporter who went to prison for assaulting a celebrity he interviewed.
The next chapter is pretty funny, but really, serves little purpose. Another new character enters the mix, a failed publicist, who gets hired by a third-world dictator to remake his image. She, La Doll, the failed publicist, wants the dictator to be seen with a faded celebrity. Of course, because things are so connected, that celebrity is the one whom Bennie’s brother-in-law assaulted. After this, there’s a chapter from the brother-in-law’s perspective that is written sort of as an article.
It’s at this point I start to skim. The article is annoying. The character’s voice is annoying. I’m looking at my watch, at the doors, wondering if I should leave. But, I don’t. Instead, I read on and we’re back in Sasha’s past. Remember her? She was from the beginning of the novel 100 pages ago. It’s a pretty boring chapter. We learn she had a dodgy past involving drug use, prostitution, theft, and traipsing around the world. Annoyingly, this chapter is written in second person point-of-view, from the perspective of a character named, Mike, who is a jerk. Thankfully, Mike is not long for the world.
Another shift occurs and we’re farther in Sasha’s past, reliving those dodgy moments while an uncle rescues her from abroad. Of course, the chapter is from the uncle’s perspective, and at the end of this chapter Egan tells us everything that will happen to Sasha in the span of a paragraph. Then, the novel goes downhill.
What’s a great novel without a chapter from a nine-year-old’s perspective constructed from bad Power Point slides? I loved in Blood Meridian when the Judge gets rid of his notebook and draws people in Microsoft Paint. Now, we’re in Sasha’s future, and it’s her kid who has the love for bad graphic design. Luckily, this kills 80 pages of the book. At which point there are 21 pages left, so what the hell, why not read them?
The novel closes with Bennie. He’s now in his 60’s and Egan seems to borrow inspiration from Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story. The future is now and we’re all connected with smart phone-like devices, texting one another, following feeds, and in bed with corporations, but looking for authentic experiences. It’s 20 pages and the end, so I read on. The loser musician friend from Bennie’s childhood is the next Bob Dylan. The chapter is from the perspective of a minor character in the beginning of the novel who goes on a date with Sasha 20-30 years ago. Of course, every premonition Sasha has about the guy comes true, and she’s some backdrop, half-remembered story from his early days in New York City.
Egan writes with beauty and clarity, but her story lacks direction. While the shifting viewpoints work in novels like The Savage Detectives, they don’t work here because the characters are never part of the larger story. Thinking in terms of a graph, the characters are more like points instead of lines that connect ideas, emotions, and events. The novel ends with a concert that is created through hype. People are paid to blog about the event, like it on Facebook, text one another. It feels like the same may have happened with this novel. While it’s been a bestseller and won awards, it doesn’t seem to matter, the book meanders and loses itself. Egan is a talented writer and it seems like some of the chapters were written to explore the characters of Bennie and Sasha, but at some point they need to come together into something larger and more meaningful. A Visit from the Good Squad is an overhyped book that’s best left on the shelf.