Sunday, July 31, 2011

There's a Reason This Book Won a Pulitzer

Book Reviewed: A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan

I believe that life is too short to read books you don't like.  If I start a book and it's falling flat for me, I stop reading it.  It's a great belief to have, and it's certainly saved me time for better, more interesting books.  But sometimes our deepest beliefs can fail us.  I finally picked up Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad (this year's Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction) after months of putting it off.  This book came loaded with ridiculously good reviews, awards, and a strong word of mouth.  So when I found myself put off my the first 20 pages, I worried that it wasn't the book for me.  I sent a plea out on Facebook asking friends if it was worth continuing.  One of my writer/reader friends said she loved it and urged me to continue.  Thank God she did.  If she hadn't talked me into it, I might never have read this incredible novel.

A Visit from the Goon Squad lives and dies by its construction.  There are two main characters that ground the book - music producer Bennie Salazar and his assistant Sasha - but each chapter takes place in a different time and place, giving it all the feel of a short story collection.  When we meet Bennie, he's turned into a bit of a hack producer, ruining all the promise he seemed to have when he was younger.  He's failing with women, family, and his job.  He's not entirely unlikable, but he's not someone you necessarily want to be friends with, either.  Meanwhile, his assistant Sasha is also a mess.  She's a compulsive kleptomaniac who doesn't seem at all comfortable in her own skin.  In the first two chapters, I judged these characters as a little too quirky and strange for my taste.  Then the third chapter kicks into gear and this book really gets moving.

Goon Squad is separated into chapters that jump back and forth through time, settling on different people with connections that reach into the past (or in the case of one chapter told entirely through PowerPoint slides, the future).  We get to meet Bennie as a young man playing in a band in California, his friends already lost in their youth.  We hear their voices, and from their stories we get the life of Bennie's hero, a morally-corrupt producer, and that man's children.  Then we see Sasha through the eyes of her suicidal best friend in college, then as a teenager in Italy struggling with her past while being reunited with her uncle.  We even get to see Sasha's future children.  This book is bursting with different people at different time periods, but it never becomes too confusing or off-track.  Instead, it enriches the experience of meeting these characters.

The "goon" in the title refers to time, the enemy of Bennie and possibly the savior of Sasha.  A Visit from the Goon Squad is as postmodern as that phrase implies, but it's also a very beautiful book featuring very real people.  At first, the East Coastness of the book annoyed me, but as the stories spread out, this becomes a book about what it means to live in the modern, digitalized America of our time.

I've read a lot of books I've liked in the last year, often for a variety of reasons.  But I'm not sure any of them quite left me with my mouth hanging open in awe like this one did.  I can't even imagine having the talent to put something like this together the way Egan did.  It's not a book I'd necessarily recommend to just anyone because it can be a little off-putting at times and the characters are awfully frustrating people.  But if you're a reader looking for something completely new and rewarding in its tiniest connecting details, then this is the book for you. 

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