A Visit from the Goon Squad

Even if you haven’t yet read Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, there are probably a few things you already know about it: It won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It features a chapter written entirely in PowerPoint slides. Your Aunt Carol from Ft. Lauderdale, who reads all the best-hyped books in a given year, didn’t really “get it.”

Indeed, the book is worth reading for all of these reasons. Some readers will get it, or claim to, while others will toss it aside, feeling disconnected from the ever-shifting cast of characters and marginal plot. Part of its audience will be lead to it by a sense of cultural responsibility, while part will read it out of curiosity for its inventive narrative techniques. The novel—or is it a short story collection?—is appealing precisely because it is so unusual and polarizing. Still, that doesn’t mean that, at its heart, A Visit from the Goon Squad isn’t just a well-written work of fiction. Though it certain dazzles, and is meant to, its literary pyrotechnics serve only to highlight the main event. Egan is a master at character development, and the truth of her virtuoso character sketches lingers long after the dazzle fades.

The book’s “plot,” insofar as there is one, centers around the lives of Bennie Salazar, a record executive and former punk rocker who long ago sold out, and his assistant, Sasha, whose personal growth is stunted by her rampant kleptomania. In the first chapter, which is really a self-contained short story, we find Sasha, in her mid-thirties and already weary of New York City, recounting to her therapist a recent encounter with a woman whose wallet she had stolen. Sasha steals for the thrill of it, and she has in her apartment a sort of shrine to all of the items that she has stolen (and never used) over the years. Because she is an interesting character in her own right, she is hard to let go of when the chapter ends; yet this is precisely the design of Egan’s text: each new chapter is dedicated to a different character.

The next chapter introduces Bennie Salazar, divorced and down on his luck, with an addiction not to hard drugs but to gold flakes, vainly hoping that they will reinvigorate his sex drive. He stirs them into the coffee his assistant, Sasha, gives him, and accidentally pinches a few flakes in front of his nine-year-old son, who insists on trying some. It’s both exciting and unnerving to see Sasha back in a supporting role: exciting because her absence is felt during the abrupt start of the new chapter, unnerving because she has been reduced to a less important background figure. Though Bennie is an equally interesting character, as are the many characters who come after him, his arrival necessarily means not only the start of a new story, but the definitive end of the previous one. In Egan’s text, there is no going back: each character is given only one chance to share his or her story, and thereafter reappears only to support the story of another character.

Over time, the book’s format becomes more familiar and intuitive, but it could easily turn off readers who prefer a more typical, plot-driven novel. Here, there is no overarching story, but rather meaningful fragments. Readers are granted glimpses into characters’ lives instead of total access. Egan cleverly mimics the way we glean so much of our information, particularly in this digital age; she emphasizes breadth over depth, covering various narrative voices, and even spanning decades and continents, but never lingering long enough in one perspective to make any character wholly knowable. She essentially isolates one interesting detail in a previous story—a friend who drowned in college, a music producer boyfriend who took his kids on an African safari—and expands it into a new story. Though the stories she chooses to tell are all ones we would like to hear, they come at the expense of our ever delving more deeply into any previous story.

If A Visit from the Goon Squad sounds like the result of an interesting exercise, rest assured that it is so much more. The stories are not just technically impressive but genuinely affecting. Above all, they are interesting, insightful, and excitingly fresh. While there’s no guarantee that you won’t end up agreeing with Aunt Carol (about not “getting” the book…not about how cute her cats look in those Christmas sweaters she knitted), you should still be able to appreciate the book for what it is: a work that dares to be inventive and ambitious, but never loses its heart.

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