Saturday, April 30, 2011

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

2011 Pulitzer Prize Winner for Fiction

I normally like to check out award winners, read reviews on them, and if it sounds interesting, then I’ll buy it. This is dangerous because the literati, writers for the New York Times, LA Times etc, definitely have different ideas about what makes up a good/literary read. I went back in time and did some research on past Pulitzer Fiction winners to see which ones I had read and which ones I enjoyed. I just picked 1948 as my starting point and low and behold, the winner was James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, which I loved. From that Pulitzer pick to 2011, I have read 16. I enjoyed all 16. The difference between that 1948 pick and that of the 2011 winner is like night and day, sand and water. One is simplistic and the other is dense, sprawling, confusing, annoying and tries to use so many literary techniques, it makes your head spin. It’s not Tales of the South Pacific. This is not a book to take lightly. Once you start, you need to keep with it and here’s why: The structure of the novel is like a crap shoot. Take two, three, four die and put the name of Sasha on some and the name of Bennie on the others. Then roll. Read more...A Visit From the Goon Squad.jpgEach number that comes up constitutes a chapter and a different character that has in some way been in contact with (however remotely) Sasha and or Bennie. So, the “novel” really is a set of short stories that could stand on their own but don’t because of the Sasha, Bennie connection. The other issue is that the novel jumps back and forth in time (over about a 40 year span) and voices change, its 1st person, then 2nd person, then 3rd. So, pay attention. The good news about the novel is that the some of the “short” stories are very good. Here’s the premise. Most of the people that populate this book are in some way connected to underground or punk rock music. Bennie is a punk rocker and Sasha is an aficionado. She ends up working for Bennie when he hits it big with his group (he, as producer), the Conduits. But, you see, Sasha has a problem. She’s a kleptomaniac. Yep, steals, steals, and steals. But it’s not the THINGS she desires. It’s the actual act of the stealing. We have another story line of a music producer who already has had two wives and 4 kids and now takes a potential third wife on a safari with his two older children. The story is told from the view point of female lover and the daughter. Some of these stories are quite funny and others downright melancholy. Stories of drug addiction, celebrity (think any young starlit that has gotten herself in trouble), suicide, family life, pauses in songs, annoyances, longing, and life beginning at “A” point, ending at “B” point and then the “A to B” point. And one in particular that I found amusing but I suppose I shouldn’t have is the story of Dolly who was once the best when it came to publicity. But she has a disastrous party which kicks her out of the limelight and is forced to do publicity for murderous dictators (which includes the now aged 28 year old starlit).

One of the things that vexed me at first is that when Egan is in the middle of a story revolving one of the characters, she then proceeds to tell you the characters life outcome. In a few short words, you find out the “B” point of that person. But then as you progress through the book, you realize that you need this because you may not see that character again. The final story I found to be one of the least effective. It’s about “A” meeting “B”. Bennie, who is now down and out, has talked one of his “has been” protégés into doing a big comeback. But, we are now in the future and babies are called “pointers” and discussions mostly take place on “handsets” that can just about do anything. The texting is texting on steroids. It is a story that does not do justice to the rest of the book. I felt lost. As far as the title goes, the definition of goon is lout, lummox, oaf, stumblebum, oaf, or clod. I think, and of course it’s only my opinion, but I believe that is the way she sees people living their lives. They’re stumbling, fumbling their way through life because they sure don’t know what the “B” point is.

It seems to me that Egan was trying to please two audiences at one time: the Pulitzer committee (or literati) with her varied techniques, multilayered stories, etc. But at the same time, she has written some stories that any everyday reader might enjoy. If you want a mental challenge, pick this book up. It did win the Pulitzer Prize…whatever that might mean to you…To me? It's a crap shoot...

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