August 24, 2010
I was excited when I heard about the novel A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. I’m kind of a sucker for any fiction that employs a rock and roll setting, and I stopped everything to read it.
From the blurbs I’d found online, I hadn’t expected Goon Squad to have such a complex rock and roll backdrop–I thought only one of its characters worked in the music business–but most of its characters are at least tenuously attached to life in the biz. The novel is filled with producers, record company folks, washed-up musicians, publicity people, fans. I love it when a novelist takes on this much of the rock and roll world.
Despite this, I wouldn’t call Goon Squad a rock novel in the truest sense. It is essentially a book about the inner lives of its many characters–each chapter is told from a different character’s point of view–and music doesn’t factor all that heavily into what makes them tick. For Sasha and Bennie, two of the main characters, selling rock and roll is no different than what selling cars might be for Rabbit Angstrom in Rabbit is Rich–something they have some passion for but ultimately not something that dictates their lives. Most of Goon Squad falls solidly in the literary/realism category, with characters dealing with issues like kleptomania, diminished sex drive and adolescent confusion, no different from what one might find in the novels of Ann Tyler or Philip Roth or a dozen other contemporaries.
No harm in that. I read and love plenty of literary stuff. And I doubt that, with Goon Squad, Egan was trying to write the Great American Rock Novel.
Much of Goon Squad resonates with compelling prose and subtle insight. I loved the first chapter, which deals with Sasha, the kleptomaniac, and her conversation with Coz, her therapist. During an exchange between the two characters about Sasha’s kleptomania, Egan writes:
Sasha tipped back her head to look at him. She made a point of doing this now and then, just to remind Coz that she wasn’t an idiot–she knew the question had a right answer. She and Coz were collaborators, writing a story whose end had already been determined: she would get well.
And again, during a flashback to a scene where Sasha steals a woman’s wallet in a restaurant bathroom, Egan writes:
Two security guards showed up, the same on TV and in life: beefy guys whose scrupulous politeness was somehow linked to their willingness to crack skulls.
Despite the novel’s incidental relationship to the music business, Goon Squad is not without its insight into the contemporary music scene. Here, Bennie ruminates on the trouble with music today:
The problem was precision, perfection; the problem was digitization, which sucked the life out of everything that got smeared through its microscopic flesh. Film, photography, music: dead. An aesthetic holocaust! Bennie knew better than to say this stuff aloud.
It’s these types of insights that make Goon Squad sparkle.
My biggest beef with the book is my sense that some of the chapters–which strike me as individual short stories later weaved into novel form–were less considered than the some of the rest, leaving me with the disappointed feeling of a work not fully realized. I never connected with Bennie, one of the more important characters in the novel. I know what I was supposed to get from him–an aging music exec grasping for his diminishing vitality–but he never resonated with me. In the end, I didn’t care much about him, and a few of the other characters struck me the same. For every character that clicked–I loved Bennie’s wife Stephanie, who successfully assimilates after moving with him to suburban Crandale–there were one or two that didn’t quite.
This sense of incompleteness is exacerbated by a PowerPoint presentation that takes up about 25% of the book. It’s a nifty trick that dramatizes the narrative arc of one family–and I bet it looks great on an iPad–but as a reader I was left feeling like I’d “read” something less than a novel, the meat and potatoes of character development traded for expediency. The novel form affords a slower, more in-depth look into character. What’s the rush?
In the end, I found Goon Squad only “good enough” as opposed to “as good as it could be.” It’s a welcome, worthy contribution to the world of rock lit, and at points a very compelling work, but ultimately it lacked the kind of sustained effort that would make me want to read it again.