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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.)
I'm so pleased that an impeccably correct product of the elite liberal cultural-literary establishment is devoted to revealing such plainly socially conservative truths as these.
From a formalist point of view, I actually wished this book had been much longer. Her genius at characterization is frustratingly under-fulfilled as she drops each point of view after a single chapter. She really could have extended each of these characters much further.
The PowerPoint thing was a disappointment unfortunately -- she is no David Byrne.
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.
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,
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.
We have here a hard working musical executive, his kleptomaniac assistant, her confused and rapist journalist brother, a film
There are chapters in word excel and writings in mobile texts. All in all it makes for a entertaining read.
The first chapter is straightforward enough, telling the story of Sasha, who is a compulsive kleptomaniac. She also has a bath in the kitchen of her apartment (that’s odd to me). Sasha then disappears into the background for the rest of the book. It is unusual to have a character introduced in the first chapter, then only see fleeting glimpses of them, but hey, I’ll roll with it for now…
Chapter Two introduces Bennie, Sasha’s boss. He’s old, trying to restore vitality by eating gold flakes. He also tries to come on to Sasha. I didn’t feel any sympathy for Bernie here.
Chapter Three is told by Rhea, Bernie’s childhood friend. (See how we’re drifting away from Sasha, but loosely linked?) Rhea uses the word ‘goes’ far too much in this chapter for my liking. Is it to demonstrate her youth despite her presence on the punk rock scene? This read awkwardly for me, perhaps it was trying to represent the teenage years.
Chapter Four involves the use of a ‘time telescope’. It takes place on an African safari and introduces some new characters, namely Rolph and Mindy. We also find out in this chapter what will happen to each of these characters in the future. Killing the suspense or just dispensing with minor characters? I found this one of the better written chapters.
Chapter Five deals with age and Jocelyn returns as the main voice. We see the aging of Lou, Bennie’s original manager/guru and compare it to Jocelyn and Rhea’s aging. Were they successful or failures? Who are we to judge? I felt this chapter focused on regret, although I note that others felt it was more about redemption.
Chapter Six brings one of Bennie’s teenage friends, Scotty to the fore. He’s a flawed but likeable character. He gives Bernie, who seems wildly successful, a freshly caught fish for a present. I didn’t try to understand the symbolism of this, nor of his compulsive dry cleaning of his jacket.
Chapter Seven represents the B side (or second half) the book – that’s in record terms, kids. This was another enjoyable chapter for me, revolving around Bennie’s wife of the time, Stephanie. She’s trapped in a wealthy, conservative suburb and feels stifled. Bennie is also out of his depth here but copes with it differently. I saw some of Betty Draper in Stephanie here.
Chapter Eight brings two briefly mentioned characters to the fore – La Doll and Kitty. This was a quirky chapter and I enjoyed the moving away from some of the recurring characters. It was also more humorous and desperate than previous chapters.
Chapter Nine is written as an article by Jules, another character mentioned briefly prior to this chapter. The subject is an uncomfortable one – about how he attacks a film star (Kitty from the previous chapter), but we know that he’s unwell mentally. The article read like a long stream of consciousness and did very well I thought about catching the state of Jules’ manic mind. The footnotes are especially troubled and show his lack of insight.
I can’t say that I enjoyed Chapter 10. This deals with Sasha’s (remember her?) friend Rob and how he meets his death. (We knew he was dead from the first chapter). It uses second person narration, which I can’t say I’m fond of.
In Chapter 11, we finally see Sasha again, but in the past. Her uncle has been sent to find her, but is quite lazy about the whole process and meets her at random. This was about finding something you don’t expect.
Chapter 12 is The Great Powerpoint Chapter. Told entirely in slides, it makes more sense than you think. I thought it was good (I got the gist of the story with very few words). We see Sasha again – this time in the future – which probably endears the reader some more. Some have criticised the ability to read this on eReaders, but I had no problems with my Sony (I use it for lectures anyway).
Chapter 13, the final chapter, was a letdown for me. Set again in the future, it involves people being so reliant on technology that they find it embarrassing to speak face to face. We see more recurring characters – some in odd situations and the introduction of text speak. This was one of my least liked chapters.
While it uses interesting devices, this book requires you to be vigilant in regards to remembering characters and details. I think I’ve understood as best as I’m going to by reading this review. This is one for the English class to study.
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.
It also sort of surprised me that "A Visit from the Goon Squad" was, at least in part, about selling out. As a teenage music obsessive, the question of who was and who wasn't going to sign with a major took up altogether too much of my time. I eventually grew up, as all teenage music obsessives do, and I moved on from the issue. The world itself seemed to have moved on, too -- the guy from Of Montreal even changed one of his song's lyrics at Outback Steakhouse's request and claimed that the entire concept of "selling out" had lost its meaning. But it takes on new life here. "A Visit from the Goon Squad" isn't to be confused with an argument for punk or indie purity -- which may always have been an unattainable goal anyway. Still, many of Egan's characters find themselves no longer young or in real-deal middle age and have forgotten, or been made to forget, who they once were. While its tone is never regretful or brooding, much of Egan's concerns the manner of compromises we're forced to make as time goes by and how those past selves might be, if not exactly recovered, at least honored in some way. This is, in other words, a great book for anyone who ever wore out a copy of Fugazi's "13 Songs" album or woken up wondering how the heck they turned into the person they are.
Egan also devotes some time to her characters' search for that rarest of all things -- the real. This is, after all, a novel that touches on punk rock, which is a genre that fetishized authenticity, or at least its own conception of it. By the book's last chapter, punk rock is as distant a cultural memory for its younger characters as ragtime is for today's kids, and while the environment has, unsurprisingly, kept degrading at speed, the author also shows that the youngest generation has something to feel hopeful about. It was a pleasant surprise to come across this non-dystopian future, but it is very much of a piece with the novel's fluid, productive approach to narrative. "A Visit from the Goon Squad" could be called, I suppose, episodic, but then Egan's hardly the first writer to tell a non-linear story. We see a couple of punk girls eat a fancy restaurant, a record producer go on a safari in Africa, a disoriented young woman make her way through Europe. We meet these same characters in other contexts, when they are living other lives. The author sometimes pauses the narrative entirely to tell us exactly how a character we meet in passing ends up faring in life. In the manner of an old friend we haven't seen in ages, she tells us how things turned out for everyone. But the book's episodes don't always connect in a strictly narrative sense, and there are few events here that lock any character into any particular fate. While not everybody ends up finding what they're looking for, this lends "A Visit from the Goon Squad" a loose-limbed, generative aspect that I found profoundly satisfying. What Egan shows us feels meaningful, but real life happens, as it so often does, somewhere in the background, while we're not really watching. From a literary perspective, it's one thing to say that the world is a big and surprising place, but by relating these loosely connected, open-ended bits of narrative, Egan actually succeeds in showing that it is. This isn't a minor achievement. This airy, extended structure also has the unexpected side benefit of allowing its protagonists the time and space they need to genuinely work on themselves. In some particularly heartening cases, we see time and effort turn chaos into stability and anger into purpose. To paraphrase Freud, these characters' journeys are proof that work and love can still work wonders. Not everybody needs to listen to Flipper -- who also, shockingly enough, get mentioned here -- but maybe this is the sort of story that everybody needs to hear, in some form or another. Recommended whether you ever gave yourself a Germs burn or not.
Aging (the "goon" of the title) plays a role in many of the stories, usually in a not-so-happy way, often in a few compressed paragraphs at the end of a chapter that often contain a coda that looks into the future.
To make myself read it, I suggested it to
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.
Speaking of video tape, digital technology also figures as a character in the very last pages. This is my favorite part of the book. Egan's characters navigate the present-future with a meld of digital hand-held devices and social networking sites only slightly more powerful and sophisticated than the iPhone and FaceBook as the central mode of interaction. Parents worry about their children's dependency and craving for these devices; they worry about their own reliance on them too. But they're resigned and helpless to stop. Just as they're resigned to the low-level post-9/11 paranoia and security apparatus that looms everywhere.
It seems that only an outsider to technology can create art that is truly great, and one of the washed-up former punk rockers, now greatly aged and beaten up, does just that. His performance at the end feels like an authentic howl in the wilderness; a wilderness not marked by wild beasts and flora but a cold, artificial one created by 1s and 0s.