I’ve been reading Jennifer Egan’s A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD, and even though I haven’t finished it yet, I think I’m ready to write a review.
In case you were wondering, A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD isn’t my norm. I tend to love stories that are full of hope. I can’t abide good guys losing, effort coming to naught, and despair.
I’m not warm and bubbly or naive in real life, but I want my fiction to be that way.
Just so you know, I didn’t choose A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD for myself; my book club chose it, and I’ve been pushing myself through it because I wanted to be able to talk about it. My book club is brand-new, and it consists of the other faculty at the high school I teach at, so I thought it would be a good avenue for some bonding with my colleagues and for broadening my literary horizons, and it was the perfect book for those two things.
It’s a great book for discussion, because Egan does some fascinating things with the writing. However, those fascinating things are also the elements of the book that I hated the most. Every chapter is about a different character, all of whom live interconnected lives of dysfunction and depression. None of them have very redeemable traits, and none of them are very likable.
But all of them are interesting.
Generally speaking, I don’t read books about characters who I hope will die. I know it’s harsh, but Egan’s book was that. I want them all dead. I truly believe that the fictional world will be a better place without them.
And yet, I’m still reading it.
Another brilliant element of the story (that I hated) was Egan’s ability to shift between wildly varying voices. She writes each chapter from a different character’s POV, which means she has to be a kleptomaniac receptionist, a homeless rock star, a journalist convicted of attempted rape, a drug addict (or two. or three), a single mom, a teen girl being taken advantage of by a rock star creeper, a man (or two) struggling with his sexuality, and any number of other characters.
And not only does she write all of those voices…
She writes them well.
She does some fascinating things with footnotes and PowerPoint slides, and provides some beautifully imagined settings and scenes, and while I am honest enough to get past my own biases about what a novel is to admire Egan’s innovation, I don’t get why it won the Pulitzer.
Maybe I’ll understand once I reach the end of the story, but as I’m closing in on the ending, I’m not getting it. I don’t think innovation is an achievement in itself. While I admire Egan’s command of the craft, it seemed a bit too much like she’s trying to impress as a means of distracting from the story.
The thing is, there isn’t much of a story. The storyline I’m seeing run throughout all of the characters’ lives is this: person begins life with hope, things happen to him (the world, others, or he, himself screws him over) and he ends life in an apathetic sort of despair. He isn’t dynamic. He isn’t kind. He isn’t admirable. And nobody is those things to him. There’s obviously something there about the degrees of separation between us all, but I want more than that.
I want my fiction to transcend my experience, but my experience isn’t nearly as horrible as Egan’s fictional world.
That’s why I don’t like it.
I admit that it’s brilliantly crafted, but it seems an awful lot like a brilliantly crafted mud pie. At it’s core, it’s mud, which will never nourish or feed and it just leaves a bad taste in your mouth.