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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.

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Art Edwards ART EDWARDS's third novel, Badge (2014), was named a finalist in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association's Literary Contest for 2011. His second novel, Ghost Notes, released on his own imprint Defunct Press in 2008, won the 2009 PODBRAM Award for best work of contemporary fiction. His first novel, Stuck Outside of Phoenix, has been made into a feature film. His writing has or will appear in The Writer, Writers' Journal and Pear Noir!, and online at Salon, The Los Angeles Review, Word Riot, The Collagist, PANK, JMWW, Bartleby Snopes, The Rumpus and The Weeklings. In the 1990s he was co-founder, co-songwriter and bass player with the Refreshments.

17 responses to “Rock Lit or Lit Fic? A Review of A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan”

  1. zoe zolbrod says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed and admired Goon Squad. While reading, I was sort of dreading the power point section, but when I got to it, I found it beautiful and moving. I liked its resonance with the musical pause theme that Sasha’s son was exploring. I liked that Sasha, music biz drop-out, gets her son’s fascination with pauses in a way her haunted husband doesn’t. I loved Sasha’s arc. I love the way the book’s concerns include those of realist fiction but that it’s also slightly sci-fi and very constructed. But your review made me realize that I didn’t quite buy Bennie, either. His character was probably the weakest for me, and I read that he was actually the character that inspired the book.

    • Art Edwards says:

      I love the combination of domestic realism and rock lit (rock ‘n’ realism?), as anyone who’s ever read my stuff knows, but I think it’s quite a trick to pull off both. I tended to prefer the realism to the rock in this effort. Chapter One blew me away.

  2. Jeffrey Pillow says:

    Art, have you ever read A Riot of Our Own: Night and Day with The Clash by Garry Baker? It’s not a novel obviously, but a good music read written by the former roadie of The Clash. In your quest for a good rock ‘n roll book, I thought I’d offer you up this suggestion.

    • Art Edwards says:

      Thanks!

      Nope. Never read it. I have yet to mine the rock non-fic of the Clash. I love the band, of course, and I will keep A Riot of our Own on my radar.

      It’s rock fiction that makes me stop everything and take notice. I have no good reason for this other than I’ve always believed it can be done well, despite the list of really good rock novels being shorter than Herve Villechaize.

      Oi!

      Art

      • Jeffrey Pillow says:

        You ever read Duke’s novel Banned for Life? I guess you could say it’s rock lit but it’s more to it than that: sort of a coming of age story/documentary of words in a man’s life as he tries to find the lead singer of a now defunct punk band.

  3. Simon Smithson says:

    I haven’t read much rock lit, but the idea of the Powerpoint section is appealing, if only to see how well it’s done. This kind of mish-mash of form can be dazzlingly innovative or horrendously hackish, I think. Or anything in between.

    • Art Edwards says:

      Do check it out, Simon. Plenty have loved the PowerPoint element of the book. It’s all in your expectations. I’m always anxious for the novel to be done well and to be complete, with the same effort expended in the middle and end as in the beginning. Seen through that lens, the PP felt like cheating, but that’s entirely my baggage.

  4. […] in Sweden when she was only 17 years old. Egan is the current #1 of the rock lit heap with her A Visit form the Goon Squad, which was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award for […]

  5. Rebecca says:

    It’s interesting to hear the comparisons to Anne Tyler and Philip Roth. I read a book by Egan over ten years ago (Look at Me), and I found it much more popular/sensational than literary–something that is probably already, in 2011, completely dated and silly. I’m now interested in checking Goon Squad out–even though it sounds like you liked rather than loved it.

    • Art Edwards says:

      Yes, heavy emphasis on like.

      I thought the first chapter and the chapter in the middle about the RnR wife trying to blend in in the suburbs were superb. Really. They didn’t strike me as popular or sensational.

      I didn’t care for the representation of the music biz or the PowerPoint thing at the end, but I didn’t find the novel a waste of time.

      And did I mention it’s rock lit?!?

  6. Rebecca says:

    Well, the success of Goon Squad is indeed very good news for anyone who might happen to be shopping around a rock lit novel!

    • Art Edwards says:

      I know. I’m trying to think of who that might describe…

      Tyler McMahon, another TNB writer, has a rock novel coming out in the fall, How the Mistakes were Made. You can bet I’ll be all over that one.

  7. Art, you must not have read Don Delillo’s Great Jones Street yet. Maybe the best rock lit novel of all time! At least until Tyler’s book comes out.

    Does Nick Cave’s And The Ass Saw The Angel count as a rock novel? Also, Primal Screamer is one of those legendary cult music novels that no one has actually read. Mostly because it’s out of print and costs like $300 a copy.

    Finally, happy to report that my next book is rock lit. It’s called Wise Young Truck. Probably 18 months until it hits shelves. Oh, but when it does, it’s going to hit them like a Paradise Theaterchorus.

    • Art Edwards says:

      Well, someone has been reading my wish list.

      Sean, Wise Young Truck is going to save publishing and the world. May my novel Badge hit the shelves at the same time and we can go on tour together. You bring the Tele, I bring the P-bass.

      Great Jones: didn’t love it. I should probably try again. I prefer The Commitments (book) and High Fidelity (book).

      Don’t know Ass/Angel or Primal Screamer. I avoid rock lit by famous musicians, though I don’t doubt it can be done well.

      Twisted Kicks starts wonderfully but sort of gets stuck in its own angst after a few chapters. I generally don’t feel like the genre has quite ramped up yet, especially on this side of the Atlantic. May that all change soon.

      Rock! (Lit)

      Art

  8. […] Contributor Art Edwards is best known around these parts for his top-notch interviews with some of writing’s most noted voices, as well as with people who aren’t associated with music at all. He, too, contributes interesting […]

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