A Visit from the Goon Squad – Jennifer Egan

Every so often I read a book and wonder if I simply ‘don’t get it’ that I know everyone else seems to be loving, and that was the feeling that I had about a quarter of the way through ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’ by Jennifer Egan and again somewhere not long after the middle and a little bit after I had finished it. Everyone has been calling it ‘original’ and ‘vibrant’ and I was thinking ‘really?’ Yet I did get through and finish reading this ‘very modern’ book, and rather a huge struggle of a book, in a ‘very modern’ way with the help of apps and audio’s. Yet before I get onto all that malarkey I really ought to try and set out the book and its premise and modernisms first really shouldn’t I?

Before I even opened the first page of ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’ I had the impression that this was a book I would either be utterly won over by or would become the arch nemesis of. Interestingly having had some space and time to think about it I have managed to fall into both camps, and no that doesn’t mean I am sitting on the fence either. I should mention that myself and Jennifer Egan had fallen out with each other a few years ago, not in the flesh I hasten to add, in 2008 when I tried and failed to love her ‘modern ghost story in a castle’ novel ‘The Keep’, a book I never reviewed as back then I was more inclined to do so about books I loved not the ones that I didn’t. So imagine my surprise, and it was genuine, when I read the first chapter of the book and loved it.

As ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’ opens we meet Sasha who is debating stealing a woman’s purse whilst also being on a date with a man called Alex in a rather nice hotel in New York City. It turns out that Sasha is a kleptomaniac, this in itself as we hear her discuss it with her psychoanalyst (or such like), and this filled me with hope… a character that I was really interested in. Imagine therefore my slight annoyance where after chapter two, in which she appears as the music mogul and gold eating addict Bennie Salazar’s PA, she vanishes for a few chapters. You see ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’ is one of those novels that is a collection of short stories where characters interlink through time and places (and I don’t mean that in a mouthed/said behind the back or your hand/under your breath way) with one similar vein, in this case music, at the heart of their correlation to each other.

The thing was I was hoping after chapter three that another music mogul, this time a bit of a seedier one, Lou and the narrator Rhea wouldn’t turn up again. Where oh where was Sasha? I couldn’t bear the way that Rhea told her story, it grated on me, ok, I admit it, I wanted to give her a polite push and tell her to shush for a while. It was how she reported people’s speech back to the reader via ‘so he goes, and I go, and she goes and I go’… and I went ‘arrrrrghhhh’ and almost hurled the book at the wall a page or two into the chapter.

Normally this is the point at which I would have given up the ghost, however, I had also been sent the ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’ app for my iPhone which not only comes with the book in digital form and lots of little additional gadgets, it also comes with the audio book and so I carried on listening through the bits that it sort of pained me to read and then reading again properly when it became interesting and digestible again. Which I have to admit it did, for example there is the story of Dolly/LA Dolly and her rise and fall and another favourite section towards the end, when the novel suddenly goes all dystopian and futuristic in 2020, when you need to read it as it is a 75 page, yes 75 of them, PowerPoint presentation.

It was things like the PowerPoint moment, or the 75 of them not that it bothered me you understand and in fact sort of worked as a character is telling a story to their autistic sibling (yet at the same time kind of spoiled what could have been a much more poignant), plus the way the book hoped over time and people (which can work wonders in books like ‘Great House’) and the futuristic parts of the book which made me think how ‘very modern’ Jennifer Egan’s ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’ was trying to be and also made me wonder if this an author who is genuinely following her creative path or doing something much more calculated and planned? I am hoping it’s the first of the two options and that maybe I am just missing out on the Goon Party and simply don’t get it.

Whilst I can see this books merits and the fact it bucks the trend for being quite innovative I would be lying if I said I was desperate to read a book like this again. I do think great books should be readable (which doesn’t mean easy), and whilst I loved the fact I could listen to this book when it all got a bit much, I shouldn’t have needed to turn to that if the prose had worked for me from the start as it did just sadly not throughout. It’s hard to give this book a rating, in parts I could say it’s a 7/10 with characters like Sasha and when the innovative style works, more often than not it was a 3/10 and I found myself frustrated and like the author was playing a game which I always lost (not that its always about the winning… it’s the taking part) so all in all a 5/10.

The book and the app were both kindly sent by the publisher.

I do feel despite the pitfalls of the novel that ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’ has given me and interesting experience of flitting between book, app, audio, extras and back again. I am not sure if I will repeat the experience, and I certainly couldn’t read a whole book on my phone, but at least I can say I have tried it. I wrote this post a few weeks ago and my opinions sadly havent changed so I have to admit I wasn’t shocked (like half the world seemed to be) or that sorry that this wasnt on the Orange Prize shorlist though I know nearly everyone else who has read it has loved it. What am I missing? What about all of you? Who has read ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’ and what did you think? Have any of you tried any ‘book apps’ and if so how was the experience?


Filed under Constable & Robinson Publishing, Corsair Books, Jennifer Egan, Orange Prize, Review

25 responses to “A Visit from the Goon Squad – Jennifer Egan

  1. gaskella

    I don’t think I could be bothered with the app or phone formats, but this book does really appeal to me. I heard the author on the radio, talking to Mariella I think and she was really kooky and the book has a different quirk appeal to me. Haven’t read her other one though…

    • I think if it hadnt been for the iPhone app I would have found it very very hard to bother to muster the energy to have read this book in the normal form. I’m by no means converted but this was helpful.

      On the radio she either comes across as kooky or arrogant. I can’t decide if the kookiness is genuine. Isnt it awful what a cynic I am about this book?

  2. Blanca

    I didnt like it. I think the story was not original and the book was rather a movie script. And I agree too many PPT slides.

    • The slides were clever in what they were trying to achieve I just had this strange feeling it was forced when I am sure it was original. Poor Egan, well shes won the Pulitzer so I am sure she isnt bothered at all, she might think its personal if she ever sees this, its not honest.

  3. I’ve not read this one, but I did read The Keep. In the end, I was not impressed with The Keep. I felt it was a very literary airplane book, if you know what I mean.

    But, I do think books are going to have to change if they’re going to survive into the next century. It could be that things like the powerpoint section and the various apps are what makes ‘publishing’ viable in the future. I wonder if you’re reading ‘Goon Squad’ on a iPad, does the powerpoint section play out like a real powerpoint presentation. I’ve a feeling that might put me to sleep. Powerpoint presentations have a way of doing that.

    • I do know what you mean by an airplane read, not that I can read on airplanes that involves relaxing, something I cant do at several thousands of feet.

      I agree books will change, no matter how much in denial I am about it, and weirdly I was open to change with this book. I will have to try and see if it works with other books I like more.

  4. teadevotee

    Oh no! I REALLY loved this – I think it might be one of the best books I’ve read all year. But I think all the added whizziness of the apps might have put me off – I’m quite old fashioned about just liking to turn the pages; I don’t feel I need an interactive experience when I’m reading – I’m quite happy with plain old imagination.

    • Thats what makes blogging and reading so exciting and interesting though isnt it? We all love different things and I have seen its very clear I am in a minority with this book.

  5. And now it’s also won the Pulitzer prize for fiction. I agree with you, it was a disappointing read and I really disliked the Powerpoint presentation. Original and quirky can only get you so far and in my humble opinion, Egan has overdone it.

    • It has indeed, and thats all good with me, the judges must have found it an interesting and original debut, which in some ways it is. Its just not really for me. I concur with the fact that quirky (and kooky too) can only go so far.

      I think Egan is like David Mitchell for me, people utterly love these authors and thats great but I think two strikes and they are out. Though of course you can never say never.

  6. This one was a DNF for me, for many of the same reasons you mentioned. I just could not get into this story, no matter how hard I tried.

    • I wonder if its the fact that rally its a set of short stories that (very) loosely overarch with characters and musical alludements which can therefore catagorise it as a novel. Its clever but it felt, for me at least, quite disjointed.

  7. I like this book more than you did, and, oddly enough, the first chapter turned me off completely, whereas you had the opposite response. It’s always fun to see a differing opinion. We agree on the merits of the La Doll chapter, though.

  8. mohit

    Must be an enjoyable read A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. loved the way you wrote it. I find your review very genuine and orignal, this book is going in by “to read” list.

    • Are you sure Mohit, as I wasnt that convinced but if my slightly negative and possibly overly cynical review can still send people to try books thats brilliant.

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  10. I really didn’t do this book justice, I’m afraid; I read it when I was most terribly distractible and inattentive. (I wrote it a letter of apology here because I hadn’t even taken notes to use in a proper response to it.) Still, there were parts of it that I wholly enjoyed, and I think the way that she handled the theme — and the characters’ intersections and interactions — was very clever indeed. I’d definitely take time for a re-read.

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  12. I’ve joined up to read this in an online bookclub – I hope my ebook copy has the Powerpoint! Sounds like we will be up for some good discussion.

  13. Pingback: Time Is a Goon: A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan « Bibliojunkie

  14. Michelle

    I echo your sentiments exactly and felt disappointed that a book I was SO looking forward to reading just left me feeling totally non-plussed. Hated the PPT presentation bit, in my (humble) opinion it didn’t sit right and I kept turning the pages hoping each time to get back to normal prose. After what I also thought was a promising start with Sasha the klepto, I suddenly found myself thrown and not really understanding what was going on, where people were, who they were, which just makes me feel slow and for a fairly intelligent, well-read person, that’s not good. Shame, but after consecutively reading several books I thoroughly enjoyed, I suppose it was time for one of these :o)

  15. Pingback: A Visit from the Goon Squad – Jennifer Egan – 3/10 | Reading Fuelled By Tea

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