On Monday Jennifer Egan won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel A Visit From the Goon Squad. I happened to be in Barnes and Noble when she won. I’ve read one of Egan’s other books, Look at Me, many years ago and enjoyed it; Goon Squad has been on my list of “books to get to” for months. So when, in an act of kismet, I was holding A Visit From the Goon Squad in my hands when I received an email saying it had won the Pulitzer I decided to bite the bullet and begin Egan’s novel.
I knew very little about the novel going into reading it. I knew it had been praised all day long by lots of people and publications I respected and that it was “different.” The Times wrote that Egan “radically re-imagined the novel genre by writing a series of interlocking stories,” and I was excited to read something that was going to be revolutionary.
Let me start by saying that I really liked A Visit From the Goon Squad. I legitimately cared about the characters, I recognized pieces of New York and my generation in them and I found Egan’s often risk-taking prose to be fast-paced and clear. But Egan’s book is not going to change the novel. Her narrative structure has been used before, most recently in 2008’s Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout and Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, which I was delighted by this summer. Both contain multiple character vignettes connected by seemingly random occurrances and links. What made Goon Squad successful (certainly more successful than Kitteridge and possibly more successful than Spin, I haven’t decided yet) was the depth of the characters. In linked character novels, it’s easy to care more about some characters than others and to speed through the “slow” chapters, waiting for something more interesting to happen. That didn’t really happen in Spin. Instead, as soon as I realized minor characters in one chapter would become major characters in another, I was on a scavenger hunt. Which potentially interesting supporting character would show up in the next vignette? Each section rewarded me with a fully-formed narrative with a fully fleshed-out character. The structure made all of her characters, major and minor, feel real and whole.
Egan took several narrative risks which she should be rewarded for. One chapter was written in the 2nd person, a favorite voice of mine. Told from the point of view of a suicidal college freshman (at NYU, my alma mater!), “Out of Body” proved to be one of the most haunting chapters in the novel. Then, of course, there is the famous Power Point chapter. Seventy-five pages of “narration” through Power Point slide. I’ll admit I was wary. I hate Power Point, as a rule, and didn’t really see how Egan could craft a meaningful narrative or character through a medium I found limiting even for presenting straightforward information. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Told through the eyes of the 12 year old daughter of two characters we meet earlier, the chapter conveyed the longing and uncertainty of adolesence beautifully. It was truly a spectacle and something I continue to think about, three days after finishing it.
There were a few uneven moments in Goon Squad. The chapter “Selling the General,” about a formerly powerful PR maven rehabilitating the image of a genocidal African dictator was…different. It seemed disconnected from the other chapters, even though its lines of connection were probably the most obvious in the novel. The Jules character reminded me of a violent Ignatius J. Reilly from Confederacy of Dunces, and his section was less interesting than the rest. The “future” described in several of the chapters reminded me very much of the future Gary Shteyngart outlines in his funny Super Sad True Love Story, but felt a bit flat.
That being said, I definitely enjoyed A Visit to the Goon Squad, really more than I expected to. It was powerfully emotional and engaging. I finished it in just three days, and read 125 pages of it on the first day I had the book. If I didn’t have a pesky thing known as a job I probably would have read through the night that first night. It’s fast-paced, engaging and daring. It may not change my world, or the literary world, but it was a delightful read.