Book Review -- A Visit from the Goon Squad

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

Jennifer Egan's writing chops dazzle in A Visit from the Goon Squad, but she's also incredibly interesting as an author and person -- click on the link to learn more about her. This is her fourth novel, supposedly completely different stylistically from the previous three (though I haven't read them), and it's one that has been on my to-read list for quite some time.

Goon Squad is loosely set in the music industry, with 13 chapters that fit together like a haphazard puzzle. Each chapter could easily function as its own short story, the kind without a clear, tidy ending but powerful all the same.

However, as you move through the text, you start to piece together the many characters. It almost reminds me of those choose your own ending books, except it's more like figure out who is who. For example, you might get a glimpse of a character in chapter 1, and then in chapter 7 you're like, Oh! Is that so-and-so from earlier? Pause. Go back. Reread section. Ok, so that was her husband/she's his assistant/they knew each other in high school.

Egan also plays with perspective and form. Each chapter shifts into the viewpoint of someone mentioned in the previous one -- sometimes the connection is immediately obvious, sometimes Egan is purposefully vague and makes you work for it and you're 2/3 through the chapter before you understand. Most of the chapters are straight up essays of varying lengths, but one is in magazine article form, another is like a PowerPoint presentation, and so on.

Back to the characters: there are a lot, which can be confusing, but I really enjoyed the challenge of keeping track.

Here's a short overview:

  • Sasha, a producer's assistant who steals compulsively from every person who crosses her path, including an innocent blind date
  • Bennie, a divorced father desperately trying to reconnect with his son who constantly reminisces about his high school days
  • Rhea, a teenager maneuvering high school with her close knit group of friends, who follows her best friend down a scary path of exploited innocence
  • Rolph, a boy on safari vacation with his father, Lou, who accidentally shares a destructive secret in an attempt to win Lou's affection
  • Jocelyn, a middle-aged woman who visits an older, dying friend in the hospital and mourns the death of her former love
  • Scotty, a semi-crazy, washed up musician seeking redemption in the form of a comeback
  • Stephanie, a rich housewife trying to navigate the social perils of her new hometown while hanging onto her job and taking care of her brother who just got out of prison
  • Dolly, a once-famous editor who takes a morally questionable assignment in an effort to win back the respect of her snobby daughter
  • Jules, a writer who goes too far while interviewing a beautiful actress
  • Rob, a man with a secret and penchant for depression
  • Ted, an uncle who goes searching for his niece after she disappears
  • Alison, a little girl who uses presentations to help her parents reconnect with her autistic brother
  • Alex, a cash-strapped  husband and father who commits to a shaky business deal

It's neat how Egan basically takes vibrant characters and doles out them out in tiny pieces throughout the text. Just like in real life, you don't know everything about someone you meet up front, but as time goes on, you learn or are given more bits of their story.

The primary theme present in Goon Squad involves the twists and turns of a life in general, how people weave in and out of each other's with no real intention. Egan explores the power and fluidity of perception, how your relationship to a person influences what you know about him or her, and how it's human nature to make assumptions about the people we know and don't know, as they are right now and as we assume they will be in the future.

Goon Squad was an excellent read, and I look forward to catching up with Egan's other works.