I’m not sure how to begin describing Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad to you, but I’ll do my best! I’ll start by saying that it’s an original and imaginative novel which revolves around a large number of different characters, most of whom are involved in the music industry in some way (be it as musicians, producers, record label owners, publicists, or music lovers). The main theme of the book is time and Egan uses her characters to explore what happens to us as we age and how life doesn’t always turn out the way we hoped it would.
I don’t know exactly how many characters there were in this book, but it felt like hundreds! Two of the most important are Bennie Salazar, a record executive, and his assistant, Sasha. Most of the other characters are somehow connected to either Sasha or Bennie, whether directly or indirectly. We meet new people in almost every chapter and I found I needed to pay attention to every new name as even someone who seemed completely insignificant could reappear later in the book.
Each chapter is written in a distinct style and has its own unique feel. One chapter takes the form of a celebrity interview; another is presented as a PowerPoint slideshow. Some chapters have a first person narrator; others are told in the second or third person; we move from past tense to present tense, from one country to another and backwards and forwards in time. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an author incorporate so many different styles and ideas into one novel – which could be either a good thing or a bad thing depending on your personal preferences. If you like books that are adventurous, innovative and different, then you’re probably going to love A Visit from the Goon Squad. If not, you might find it all a little bit confusing and overwhelming like I did.
Many of the chapters seemed more like self-contained short stories than part of a novel and although each one is linked to the others in some way, I thought the book felt too disjointed. For me this made the experience of reading it quite uneven – there were some parts that I really enjoyed and some that just didn’t interest me at all. The air of experimentation, along with the PowerPoint presentation and the futuristic world portrayed in the final section, made the whole book feel very ‘modern’ and this is maybe another reason why it didn’t really work for me. I suppose I just prefer novels which have a more conventional structure, less jumping around in time and place, and a stronger plot.
A Visit from the Goon Squad sounded fascinating and I can see why a lot of people would love it – it’s a very unusual book which sparkles with originality and creativity – but it turned out not to be my type of book at all.