24
Mar
15

I Hate It Here: A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

A Visit from the Goon SquadA Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Sometimes books hit me right between the eyes and catch me unawares. Other times, I want to hit the book right between its eyes. This was one of those times.

Jennifer Egan’s novel A Visit From the Goon Squad had picked up a shelf of tributes: a Pulitzer Prize, plenty of best-of-the-year awards and more blurbs than I bothered counting. Most say some variation of how smart the book is, how clever a writer Egan is. And that’s just where my problems begin.

Her book more or less follows a group of people along their lives, starting in late 70s San Francisco, through New York in the mid-aughts and winding up in the desert at some unspecified point in the future. They start punk bands, go on safaris and have a moment to reflect on the September 11 attacks. And they’re all super caught up in themselves and their lives that they might not realize how alienating they are.

Which is probably key to this book. It never asked me to consider that maybe these characters were supposed to be unlikable, but they’re all generally crappy people: they lie, cheat, backstab and act petty all the time. Maybe that’s the point, but I never felt especially clear on how Egan wanted readers to feel, if she wanted people to see through their self-congratulatory attitudes and luxury trappings. Particularly since Egan has her characters defend each other when they assault people and wreck each other’s lives.

Indeed, as the back copy says, some of these characters experience “redemption,” which I suppose makes it okay when one tries to sexually assault a person they’re supposed to writing a profile about: they’re bad now, but everyone will get their happy ending! Except maybe the victim, who in another story is wed to a third-world dictator. Really.

What really makes this book frustrating is how on a technical level, it shows Egan as an interesting stylist. Throughout the stories here, Egan tries different structures, forms and voices. One story is told through a PowerPoint slideshow, another is structured in the second person. There’s even a DFW pastiche, a rambling, self-obsessed story just laced with footnotes. And in a formal sense, the stories all work: they’re put together well and Egan never falters in all kinds of experimental styles.

But at the same time, it’s a gimmick that when combined with her characters narcissism, has the discomforting effect of feeling show-offy. It’s as if Egan is showing off, almost bragging about all the feats of prose she can pull off. It left me with a bad feeling in my mouth and at times, left some of her stories just about unreadable for me.

Still, I’ll give her credit when they work: “Great Rock and Roll Pauses” (aka: the slideshow story) is a moving story about parents trying to connect with an autistic child who’s obsessed with pauses in rock tunes; as someone with an autistic family member, the way she captured single-minded obsession and how families have to adapt to them resonated with me. Likewise, I think “Forty Minute Lunch” is supposed to be unreadable and awful; it’s certainly successful at it.

But ultimately, her novel never quite lived up the hype: it’s not a band novel, barely even one about music (so much for the back copy again, which claims there’s “music pulsing on every page’) and is ultimately one about people who all seem to think they’re a lot smarter than they are, written in a way that seems to suggest the author is of a like mind.

Rating: 2/10. Honestly, it was one of the more infuriating books I’ve read in a while; even as I blazed through the thing in a few days, I still found myself setting it down in disgust every so often. Even if you’re interested in her prose and attempts at various devices, I’d still recommend Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style over this. At least there, you don’t have New Yorkers feeling sorry for themselves every few pages!

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