Bennie Salazar, an aging former punk rocker and record executive, and Sasha, the passionate, troubled young woman he employs confront their pasts in this powerful story about how rebellion ages, influence corrupts, habits turn to addictions, lifelong friendships fluctuate and turn, and how art and music have the power to redeem.
We meet Sasha in the first chapter when she steps into the women's restroom at a hotel and is taken by the urge to steal the wallet from the handbag of an occupant of one of the stalls. We learn this incident took place on a date with a young man she met via the internet as she is retelling the incident to her therapist, who is trying to help her come to grips with her compulsion to steal things. We also learn that she used to be the assistant of one Bennie Salazar, a big player in the music industry. In the next chapter, we meet Bennie who is working through a series of shameful memories. He's sitting in a meeting, when his assistant Sasha appears and hands him a cup of coffee into which he mixes some gold flakes, an Aztec concoction to ensure sexual potency. "So this is going to be a story about this Sasha and this Bennie characters working through their issues", I think. Then by chapter three, we move to a first person narrative. This part of the story takes place in 1979. Our narrator is a teenager called Rhea, and she and a bunch of friends are part of a punk rock band trying to make it on the music scene; other than her there's also Scottie, Jocelyn, Alice, and a young Bennie Salazar, who Rhea happens to have a crush on. Her best friend Jocelyn is having an affair with a fortysomething year-old called Lou, which all makes for plenty of sex, drugs and rock'n roll. "We've got multiple points of view and we keep going back in time", I now think. By chapter 12, which is told by one Alison Blake via powerpoint slides sometime in the future, I think: "multiple perspectives through time with characters related by causality. An interesting exploration into storytelling approaches." Then, with the thirteenth and last chapter I think—not for the first time—that this novel is just too gimmicky for me and that those Pulitzer prize people really are off on a very high literary cloud that most regular folk can never hope to come close to, including me. But then, something happens because I haven't quite gotten to the end yet, and I catch myself wishing I wasn't so overbooked again this month, because I really wouldn't mind reading this one all over again, maybe a couple of times even, to figure out just what it is that Egan has done to somehow get this strange brew to actually work the way it does. So she must have done something right, right?
The stories are centered on the lives of Bennie Salazar, an aging former punk rocker and record producer and his one-time assistant Sasha and span the years 1979 through about 20 years into the future. This is much too complicated a plot to try to summarize and it is a book that I will try to reread in the next six months because I think that is how the stories will gel for me. A very interesting yet very challenging read, there were times when I couldn’t pin down the time frame and then Egan would throw out the words that would immediately solidify when the story was taking place without giving the actual date. She draws connections and parallels between her characters and the dying music industry because this is, above all, a book about rock and roll. Patterned after albums which have an A and B side she is able to draw comparisons to her struggling characters lives: an overweight, down on his luck rocker; a young girl with a stealing propensity; a has been publicist who tries to resurrect her career on the back of a Central American dictator and a washed-up actress; a young journalist who loses control of his story and himself as he tries to rape the young actress he’s interviewing; and along the way the story seamlessly turns in on itself and makes for a fascinating mosaic.
The closing chapter, which takes place in the future, reveals how society may have evolved about twenty years from now and the author chooses her words carefully:
“Rebecca was an academic star. Her new book was on the phenomenon of word casings, a term she’d invented for words that no longer had meaning outside quotation marks. English was full of these empty words---“friend” and “real” and “story” and “change”---words that had been shucked of their meanings and reduced to husks. Some, like “identity,” “search,” and “cloud,” had clearly been drained of life by their Web usage. With others, the reasons were more complex; how had “American” become an ironic term? How had “democracy” come to be used in an arch, mocking way?” (Page262)
Smooth, polished writing carries you along and Egan’s ability to draw deep, complex characters and to connect to the reader with great storytelling makes each story compelling and able to stand on its own. But it is as you start to make the connections that you find yourself smiling at the ingenuity of the narrative. Highly recommended for the reader willing to be patient for the big reward.
The book deals with a large cast of characters, each connected to the others through a six-degrees-of-separation kind of synchronicity. Each chapter of the book is a bit like a short story, in that they seem to stand on their own, but there is a definite progression through the book that lends it a coherence that might seem to be missing initially. With each new chapter, one feels a little disoriented, as the characters at first seem to have nothing to do with the previous chapter’s cast. But, gradually, one realises that there are tangential connections between the characters in each chapter. Often, Egan makes a character who was very marginal or only briefly mentioned in a previous chapter, the focus point of the new chapter. As I mentioned, this lends a disjointed feel to the novel – not necessarily a bad thing. Egan manages to deftly interweave the different strands of her story, even if the ending of the book seemed far-fetched to me. A personal quibble.
I found most of the experimental writing interesting. Egan has a whole chapter presented in the form of various charts, which is supposedly the way in which future generations will post things on the Internet. Hmm, possibly, but unlikely. In any case, this kind of speculation adds to the interest of the novel. And, although I am a bit more of a traditionalist (with a dislike for pictures in novels – I’m looking at you, Incredibly Loud and Extremely Close), this seemed to work better than most attempts at introducing other media into novels. I also found the references to the music industry fairly enlightening and absorbing.
Did it deserve the Pulitzer? Dunno. I liked it. It has definite humour, but also gravitas and an emotional core. Even if you do not like postmodern smoke and mirrors, this book has enough else going for it to be worth at least a dip.
The thirteen chapters of this novel play out like a series of short stories centred around the circle of friends, relations and business associates of Bennie a record company owner and then record producer after selling his company. The stories are connected by the characters in them and references back to Bennie, they go forwards and backwards in time and some are told in the first person. They are all well written in a glib superficial prose style that can appear more conscious of leading up to a wisecrack than in developing plot or character. We suspect that the sort of people that hang around record company and advertising executives are a shallow bunch and Egan does nothing to dissuade us here.
It is a fast paced entertaining read and the short story idea works well as one of the main themes of the novel is connections and while connections are not immediately obvious when we start a new section, Egan soon skilfully makes them for us. It is also a critique of American society and points towards an uncertain future, but we have all heard this before and the smart ass writing keeps getting in the way. Don’t get me wrong I enjoyed it, but it felt more like a well scripted American movie than a prize winning piece of literature. 3.5 stars.
Another annoying habit of Egan’s involved her suddenly telling the reader what would happen to a character in the next 20 or 30 years. She often dropped these as an afterthought at the end of a chapter.
Egan wrote one chapter entirely in second person. A cheap trick and a tired gimmick, if you ask me. Chapter 12 took the form of a power point with flow charts and pie graphs. Like the form in its usual incarnations in business meetings, this chapter had “No power and no point.” I could not even begin to tell you what ideas this chapter tried to convey. All I got out of it was a well-scratched head.
The characters who populate this story had not one ounce of charisma – except for a few women characters drooled over by some of the men. Second-hand charisma is phony.
A Pulitzer Prize? Give me a break. A Visit from the Goon Squad doesn’t even come close to any book awarded the Booker Prize.
This novel is gimmicky and not worth the read. 1 star
There are many characters in this story, but the focal point of the book are two: Bennie and Sasha. Bennie is a music producer whose early years were spent in the San Francisco punk scene. Sasha was Bennie's assistant - a kleptomaniac who struggled with intense personal losses. Around them orbited secondary characters, including: Scotty, Bennie's friend from high school who played the slide guitar; Teddy, Sasha's uncle who travels to Naples to find Sasha but gets distracted by Naples' art; Rob, Sasha's college friend who drowned in the East River; and Rhea, another high school friend of Bennie's who manages to escape the punk scene relatively unscathed. With each secondary character, you learn more about Bennie or Sasha, until the end when you meet Alex, the one character with ties to both. This circular fashion of storytelling reveals so much about the characters - adding layers of complexity to each one.
Admittedly, one of my favorite chapters is the "PowerPoint chapter" - crafted by Sasha's daughter, Alison. I enjoyed how Egan presented Alison's story through the slide deck. It was effective and creative, and stretches the imagination of the reader. I never knew that a great story could be told through PowerPoint, but in Egan's competant hands, Alison's story was full of emotion and love. PowerPoint has never been warmer.
Once you've settled in to Egan's writing style, A Visit from the Goon Squad takes off like a roller coaster, bouncing you through twists and turns that you don't see coming. This book won't be for everybody, but I think readers who enjoy character-driven fiction will find The Goon Squad to be an enjoyable and insightful read.
After reading a few chapters of Jennifer Egan’s latest novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, I’d determined it was really a collection of linked stories more than a novel. Reading further, however, I saw the larger themes and the cohesiveness of the whole. It is, indeed, a novel, and an excellent one at that!
The book opens sometime in the past—the late 90s, I’m thinking—and kleptomaniac Sasha is recounting a story to her therapist. Her former boss, record producer Benny Salazar, is mentioned in passing. The next chapter takes place several years earlier. Here Sasha is still Benny’s assistant, and now it is he that is the first person narrator. Benny’s just trying to get through a visit with his pre-teen son while mentally stifling a lifetime’s worth of shame. He reflects, in passing, on his old high school gang, and in the next chapter we’re back in San Francisco, circa 1980, with them. Benny wants Alice, but Alice wants Scotty. Scotty wants Jocelyn, but teenage Jocelyn is seeing Lou, a record producer more than twice her age. Don’t worry, he’ll get his chapter.
They all get a chapter or two or three. The story skips back and forth in time and place. The voice moves from first person to third person and even to second. Asides or characters that seemed tangential become central. And eventually several themes become apparent. The main one is not even subtle, as the traversing between points A and B is referenced several times in various ways. Scotty at one point asks, “I want to know what happened between A and B.” An aging rock star’s comeback album is entitled A to B. Even the two sections of this book, which might have been labeled “Part I” and “Part II” in another book, are here “A” and “B.”
Another theme is the passage of time. The novel, as I mentioned earlier, moves back and forth freely along the timeline of characters’ lives. Ranging from around 1980 to some point in the 2020’s, we see the (often ravaging) effects of time.
One character states, “Time’s a goon, right? Isn’t that the expression?”
Another responds, “I’ve never heard that. ‘Time’s a goon?’”
“Would you disagree?”
The episodes that Egan spotlights are all, in some way, transformative for her characters. And let’s talk about those characters. Reviewers like me will often extol “richly-drawn characters.” It isn’t until I read a novel like this—with insight so deep that you feel you know everything it’s possible to know about these people based on brief snippets of their lives—that it really hits home what characterization is all about. Egan is THAT good.
Plus, there’s the language. Her prose is truly a pleasure to read, no matter how absurd or at times unpleasant the subject matter. Egan’s pointillistic novel roams from the New York music scene to an African safari; from the affluent suburbs to life on the edge in Naples, Italy; from a dictator’s palace to our collective future. And in careening from place to place, time to time, and character to character in these linked lives, Jennifer Egan takes us from point A to point B.
And then Egan puts those key bits in a blender and they come out zigzagging between the 1980s and a dystopian 2020s; between San Francisco, New York City, Africa, and Italy; through various characters, tenses, points of view and narrative forms (including a magazine article with footnotes evocative of David Foster Wallace, and a 12-year-old’s slide presentation that’s nearly graphic-novel format). The structure borders on showy and distracting, but it’s also very fun and the stories are good -- the most extensively (and effectively) linked collection I’ve read yet.
(Review based on an advance reading copy provided by the publisher.)
Still, no reader is here to agree with the majority opinion, and I am not rejecting the book outright and claiming it lacks many of the qualities others might marshal in defense of its greatness. Perhaps I expected too much, as I never really considered reading the book until after it had done gathering in its accolades, so I was primed for a Really Great Read. What I got was, in my opinion, a Sometimes-Good Read that had untapped potential to be more the kind of book I might wholeheartedly endorse.
Perhaps the key to my dissatisfaction comes in the way the book has been presented. It is no secret that this is a book of short stories, not a novel. As such, it has no chance of immersing readers in the transcendental manner of a novel. No sooner is a character introduced and lightly explored than he or she is shuttled aside and we start again. True, the connections are all there, and one can play the spot-the-linkage game throughout the book, but that comes to feel more like a pastime once it becomes clear that we will never once circle back for greater continuity on any of these stories. Here is Sasha when she's relatively young, and there she is in a supporting role of Benny's story, and here she is in college, and there she goes in her precollege days that we heard a bit about, and then she's spotted in the oft-referenced story told in Powerpoint, and finally she's hovering as a figment of recollection in the final tale. Yet for all that, she becomes only slightly more of a fully realized character than she was in the one story in which she is the main character. Some of her traits and tendencies are explained, and we're given some clue about her future, but all I know about this character after all that is she has some sadness in her and is hard to know.
It does not surprise me to discover that HBO is developing the book as a series, because the elements of television are all there. The stories have a variety of interesting settings and numerous characters that will probably benefit more from being embodied than they were in being described. There are anecdotes and flashbacks set within the plot structure of the stories too, so the screenwriters and directors can have fun with that. But more to the point, what I found is that there is a superficiality to the characters and their plights that have more in common with TV than with books. The sentimentality of many of the stories might resonate with viewing audiences. The lingering images that stand in for understanding or revelation will convince those that see them that something important and moving has been communicated.
Most of my criticisms apply to the collection as a whole or to a select few stories that felt overperformed (the Powerpoint story is animated by nothing more than rock critic obsession and Hallmarkian family sweetness). Some of them worked well on their own terms, and I would have welcomed additional stories that stuck with these characters and drew me into their world more fully. I have considered and reconsidered the reductive rating I'd give this book, but finally arrived at one that is lower than I expected it to be. It's a rating informed by my experience of the book, not by a more objective reckoning. If this book were being graded for its themes and experimentation, it would definitely earn higher marks. But quite honestly, this book irritated me as much as--perhaps more than--it entertained and informed me, and therefore I can't say that I liked it. I will remember it, and I might even reconsider it at a future date, but right now I'm just glad it's over.
this book is irritating on so many levels. whatever jennifer egan says, this is mostly a glorified short story collection rather than an actual novel. (as a novel, it doesn't work. period. as a short story collection, it's average.)
the characters are unlikable (this book is like THE definition of #WHITEPEOPLEPROBLEMS) and the format is gimmicky. for example, one chapter is (infamously) presented as a powerpoint presentation. Now, I was once six years old, and while I didn't have MS Powerpoint as a kid, I did have WordArt and a Microsoft Publisher-esque program called Greetings Workshop. I spent many long hours using these programs to type out stories in rainbow fonts, make news articles, and design book covers so it's not like I think the concept of a 12-year-old girl using powerpoint rather than a traditional diary to chronicle her feelings is that strange. (as you might expect, I was not a very popular child lol). HOWEVER, if Jennifer Egan expects me to believe that this story NEEDED to be told in ppt format rather than in a traditional format, then homegirl is sorely mistaken. There is an emotional beat in the story (and to be fair, Egan is really great at emotional beats) that MIGHT have only worked using the ppt format, but at the same time, I'm not really sure if that payoff was worth the gimmicky format. oh and e-book users beware --this chapter is not fun to read on your kindle.
It's not just one chapter either --another chapter is written as a magazine interview with (groan) FOOTNOTES. this novel has been called post-post-modern, whatever that means. egan herself disagrees with the label. there's actually nothing truly experimental about this novel (if using .ppt format is revolutionary, then I weep for the state of American literature); it's pretty much standard New Yorker-fare. plus, all the references to modern life --AIMspeak (nothing says second-hand embarrassment like authors trying to imitate youth slang), 9/11, millenials, Gawker-- just had me RME and SMDH.
As for the good things: when Egan stops fishing in her bag for cheap literary tricks, she actually writes pretty well. There are some sentences that I want to underline again and again, and like I said, she really knows how to write those emotional beats. She is marvelous at ending stories --some of them are so exquisite, they almost make up for the other 5000 words you were forced to read.
We have here a hard working musical executive, his kleptomaniac assistant, her confused and rapist journalist brother, a film actress whom he molested, a bi sexual guy, a publicist and her clever daughter. The myriad of characters gives you a glimpse of the life in the Big Apple and how it will change in the coming few years.
There are chapters in word excel and writings in mobile texts. All in all it makes for a entertaining read.
Nothing wrong with shifting POV with each chapter but the reader shouldn’t feel obliged to sort out the characters and relationships anew with each new one. Adding to the confusion is that, whether in first or third person--let’s try to forget that second-person attempt and the Power Point—they’re all the same neutral narrative voice and style. Nothing distinctive, experimental or age- or era-specific.
Given how many books Egan had behind her, I was surprised by how much these individual stories resembled the products of graduate creative-writing classes. They all consist of conventionally formed short stories or single-act plays: vivid central scene or series of scenes taking place in a short timespan. There’s an incident or shared moment or transcendental insight. Then shoot fast-forward: death or divorce or they all lived happily ever after. Theme: the inexorable pile-up and speed of time and aging.
Besides referring to some members of a cast of characters at different points in time between the late 1980s/early 1990s and some vague ill-drawn time in the 2020s, the stories are linked by um motifs of music/ musical instruments,* stuffed animals, blonde/red hair, beds, couches, drugs (tho Egan is really only acquainted with pot and hash), ball sports, velvet, swimming and pools, the strangeness or unknowability of one’s own children, suicide attempts, views (from high floors, of city expanses, sunsets)
Anyone else notice, tho, how poor Egan is at depicting landscapes or cityscapes despite all the references? Even Naples. The ‘stan chapter was particularly embarrassing, exposing ignorance of both pr tactics and the behavior of dictators. That one might have worked, btw, if Egan could have emulated a Gary Shteyngartian style and voice—a slight hyper-reality, an amped-up reality at one remove from the one we’re generally familiar with. But of course then you have the problem that all the other chapters, are stuck with that same neutral, impersonal voice.
*Though after the first chapter punk-era Bay area, not what each period’s soundtrack sounded like!
Enough complaining for the moment. Egan has strengths. She’s very attuned to the ebb, flow and pull of conversation between intimates. Even considered as stand-alone short stories, the intimate nature of relationships is quickly established. The shared feeling, how we draw on our feeling histories with each other, the realization that the bond isn’t there anymore. In the second-person story (told by this Rob person before he drowns in the East River), there’s the feeling that propels Rob to tell Drew too much (about Sasha). It’s a gift that backfires, but an attempt to tighten his relationship with this guy.
I must agree with many others: my interest steadily diminished after the first third. Surely no one really read through that entire Power Point chapter?
I thought, was hoping, after the initial chapters that I was going to learn something about the music business, at least how it worked in the punk era. What made Benny such a talent spotter? What did he hear? How did he sense the Next Big Thing? How do you know you’ve lost the touch? How did the Walkman change the business, etc. Egan was probably in late high school or at least paying close attention to music in the punk period. Then she lost interest and I’m afraid to say was too lazy to do any further research.
I had to drag my way through that last chapter, carping all the way about all the premises of the near future. If it’s half-assed presentable, the doubts shouldn’t hit until after the book cover is closed. If she had finished writing a year or two later, maybe at least she would have caught on to the smartphone or iPad interface. Instead: typing, ouch.
How about the premise that babies and toddlers would be music trendsetters for, I dunno, just about everybody? Well, duh, the structure and melodies that little kids like aren’t some great mystery. Sesame Street, Disney and whoever wrote the ABC song or Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star knew that. A computer could be churning those out if it’s not done already. And how are people paying for music? How has the piracy problem been aced?
Then generalizations about "this generation" whether its habits or tastes. Not that crude marketing demographics were ever much use, but web programs (ask Amazon) demonstrated pretty early on that people that like or do a, b, c and x, y, z are more similar (and thus you can make predictions of what they *will like*). Their age alone doesn't tell you much at all. Nor does the addition of race, religion, nationality, etc. Didn't Malcolm Gladwell point this out years ago?
In a related matter, she totally ignores the splintering in musical tastes and genres, which if it continues ... well, a good speculative fiction writer, like Margaret Atwood, would run with that. The idea of paid influencers is OK but you have to deal with the micro-forums where fans of each sub- sub-genre congregate and make lists. I had more carping but I guess that gets my point across.
Certainly, that’s the case with a book like this, which is really on some level about time and how it affects people. There’s a very loose web of connections between all the characters who keep popping up in each other’s stories, spouses and parents and co-workers and dates, interviewers and producers and uncles and PR experts. It’s probably closest to say that the story is most concerned with Bennie Salazar, a punk bassist turned music producer, and his assistant, Sasha, but there are so many other characters that get a turn in the writing limelight, all interesting and vividly evoked when their turn comes up, and so it’s hard to say that it’s really specifically about any of them. It’s really about how time gets to everyone, and the ways in which people can be connected, without even really thinking about it; I have a bet that if I read the first half of the book again, I’d notice a whole bunch more connections I missed the first time.
The style of the book is varied, as well, from a travelogue trip to Italy to a celebrity interview to an extended second-person riff from a suicidal college student to the first time I’ve seen an extended Powerpoint presentation as a storytelling advice, put together by a girl in the near future. The tone, then, can be satire, can be tragic, can be wry forecasting of the future; chapter to chapter, things keep changing, but the assuredness of the prose and the preciseness of the story are always there. God knows how long it took Egan to map out all the connections, and where they’d show up.
I think what I like best about this is how you essentially see none of the characters seriously in their best moments. You hear about them, you may even see them fleetingly, but the story is concerned with the rest of the time in your life, where things aren’t as settled, where you’re looking ahead or, particularly, behind at the rest of your tenure on the planet. Most of life is like that, after all; a lot of it isn’t the exciting parts.
But that’s not to say that this book isn’t exciting; it’s a solid, interesting, varied read, and I quite enjoyed it. It’s not life-changing, but it’s expertly done and intricately constructed, and I can recommend it, when you think it’s about time.
Most of the narrative voices in A Visit from the Good Squad are crushed by regrets for things done or things they will do, mingled with nostalgia. Or perhaps all nostalgia is somehow rueful. Even the child narrator of the PowerPoint chapter (it’s not so strange; there have been PowerPoint “story” templates for child educators around for years) is weighted down with fears of a planet in mass decline and parents who are barely coping. And the babyish txt-language of the final chapter does not hold out much hope for any meaningful communicative future. And yet, when you get past all that, that elegiac tone and content, there is a real quest for narrative and aesthetic purity, whether in the “music” of Cezanne’s colours or the variety of silences in a musical fermata. Definitely worth a read.
"Alex imagined walking into her apartment and finding himself still there - his young self, full of schemes and high standards, with nothing decided yet."
I thought the stories varied somewhat in quality, and didnt glean much from 'Great Rock and Roll Pauses' where the 12 year old narrator tries to represent her home life, and her autistic brother, in a series of graphs and Venn diagrams.
But overall a strong novel, as members of a loosely connected group of acquaintances in the music business go about their often dysfunctional lives.
Jennifer Egan’s stories jump around in time and in place and in theme—and also in style. She experiments with a range of styles, some traditional and some wildly experimental. Her experiments sometimes fail: for example, her second-person story of a suicide, told by the victim himself, seemed to me quite forced. Other times her post-modern experiments work brilliantly, most notably in her remarkably touching story-in-powerpoint—yes, powerpoint—narrated by a 12-year-old character, Allison Blake, about her life with an autistic brother. There are other high points in the book, inchapters that have a more traditional style, including the one that tells the tale of the safari mentioned above.
In some ways this book recalls those of Salmon Rushdie or Zadie Smith, with their parade of seemingly dozens of quirky characters. In others, it recalls the David Mitchell masterpiece “Cloud Atlas,” which was similarly built on loose links between its chapters. But where “Cloud Atlas” ultimately succeeds by building a coherent, compelling whole, “A Visit from the Goon Squad,” while fun to read—in in places enormously fun—in the end disappoints in its failure to hang together and present the long arc of coherent character development and change that make a novel great.
To make myself read it, I suggested it to bookclub and it got voted in. And boy am I glad it did. LOVED, LOVED, LOVED! And the powerpoint chapter ended up being one of my favorite chapters to read. Poignant: and what he's really saying to Dad is "I love you." (sorry gotta read it).
And how did she come up with all these fantastic mini-stories, turn her characters (not really likable either) inside out for us to see their motivations without boring us, and turn it all into one? Genius, that's how.
Time is a goon! If we allow it to thieve us of who we are. Cheers, Jennifer Egan. You took my breath away.