A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan

This popular book, which won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize along with many other awards, was my book club's selection for this month. It's a highly experimental book, moving back and forth in time and introducing new characters with each chapter. Since we rarely return to any of the characters from the previous chapters, Egan's challenge to herself is to create a cohesive narrative out of these fragments.

In her reader's guide she says:

I began A Visit from the Goon Squad without a clear plan, following my own curiosity from one character and situation to the next. My guiding rules were only these: 1) Each chapter had to be about a different person. 2) Each chapter had to have a different mood and tone and approach. 3) Each chapter had to stand completely on its own. This last was especially important; since I ask readers to start over repeatedly in A Visit from the Goon Squad, it seemed the least I could do was provide a total experience each time.

In other words, you can read this book without making a single connection between any two chapters. They were written—and published—as individual pieces, apart from the book as a whole.

My book club was split fairly evenly between those who enjoyed the book a lot and those who disliked it. While I appreciated Egan's wit and inventiveness—one surprisingly effective chapter is done entirely in PowerPoint slides—I had to count myself among the ones who didn't enjoy it.

Partly my lack of enjoyment was due to the constant switching to new characters. I found it hard to care about characters, however vividly drawn, who disappeared a few pages later. The writing is great. I loved the first chapter where Sasha lifts a wallet in the ladies room of the Lassimo Hotel. And the story of Dolly, aka La Doll, a publicist and cultural barometer, was hilarious, if sad. But the repeated jolting kept me from getting into the book.

The other part that made me actively dislike the book was the theme. One character says, “‘Time's a goon, right?'” And indeed, all of the characters are roughed up if not killed by time, by the lives they fall into. You're a sad, confused child and then life goes downhill from there. Several different characters end up saying, “‘I feel like everything is ending.'” Or they have to come to terms with “‘the unspeakable knowledge that everything is lost.'” As several folks in my book club said, it made for a very depressing read.

I guess I'm just a Pollyanna at heart. Life gets better all the time, that's what I think.

Still, as I say, I'm in the minority! The book is tremendously popular and successful, and many people are hugely enthusiastic about it. Just because the book is not my cup of tea doesn't mean that you won't enjoy it. Use the comments section below to let me know what you thought about the book.

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