Book review: A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

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From the publisher:

Jennifer Egan’s spellbinding interlocking narratives circle the lives of Bennie Salazar, an aging former punk rocker and record executive, and Sasha, the passionate, troubled young woman he employs. Although Bennie and Sasha never discover each other’s pasts, the reader does, in intimate detail, along with the secret lives of a host of other characters whose paths intersect with theirs, over many years, in locales as varied as New York, San Francisco, Naples, and Africa.

The first chapter is good.  A bit… fluffier and more explicit, maybe, than I would expect from a Pulitzer winner, but good.  The problem is that what makes the book stand out – its many characters – also makes it difficult to care about.  I got all invested in Sasha’s story, and then we never heard from her again.  I got invested in Dolly’s story, and then we never heard from her again.  I got invested in Stephanie’s story, and then we never heard from her again.  Do you see where I’m going with this?  Egan gives us just enough to start to care about the characters, but there’s never any closure.

I was about ready to DNF after the third character change in three chapters.  And not only does the character change, but so does the writing style.  Everybody has a different voice, which is impressive and also excessive because we have chapters written in first, second, and third person, as well as present and past tense.  Heck, there’s even a chapter that solely consists of a PowerPoint presentation.  Not only that, but the time between chapters could span decades – and then we’d hop right back in the past.

This was another thing that frustrated me.  I can handle character jumps and time period jumps, but at least tell me what’s going on.  What’s so difficult about starting a chapter with the heading “BENNIE SALAZAR, 1983″ – or something similar.  At least I’d have some idea of what’s going on.  I wish the relationship between all of the characters had been better stated, as well. Some connections were clear, a daughter or friend that was mentioned in a previous chapter.  Others were tangential at best, and after finishing, I still have no idea what I read.

The book does start to pick up around the halfway mark, or maybe that’s just when I decided to power through and finish.  I’d been reading for three days and it was three days too many, so I just sat myself down and read straight through until I finished.

This book tried so hard to be clever, but it just didn’t do it for me.  It exemplifies everything that I hate about literary fiction: the lack of plot, the sweeping statements that are supposed to be thought-provoking but just fall flat, the random analogies, and the unlikeable characters.  This is so far from other Pulitzer winners that I’ve read that I just have to wonder what the committee was thinking when they chose this over the thousands of other books published in 2010.

Final rating: ★★☆☆☆

#mmdreading: a Pulitzer Prize or National Book Award winner

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