Title: A Visit from the Goon Squad
Author: Jennifer Egan
Ah, I had such high hopes for A Visit from the Goon Squad. It was one of the best-reviewed books of 2010. I've read a lot of interesting books lately, including Julia Glass's The Widower's Tale and Alison Weir's Innocent Traitor, that employ multiple narrators, and I was eager to read Egan's tale about the music scene in New York. The story opens with Sasha, assistant to music producer Bennie Salazar, stealing a wallet from an unattended purse in a Manhattan restaurant bathroom. I was hooked, and wanted to hear more about Sasha, her job and her life in the city. But the Sasha's story ended, and suddenly we were with Bernie, several years earlier. From there, the narrative flits wildly, from Sasha to Bennie to a half dozen other characters, from the East Coast to the West Coast and back again, back and forth in time, from the 1970s to the 2020s.
Publisher's Weekly says that "Readers will be pleased to discover that the star-crossed marriage of lucid prose and expertly deployed postmodern switcheroos that helped shoot Egan to the top of the genre-bending new school is alive in well in this graceful yet wild novel" I appreciate the multiple voices, and think that Egan does an admirable job creating clearly defined characters. Sasha sounds nothing like Bennie, and the 18-year-old Sasha sounds different from the 32-year-old Sasha sounds different from the 45-year-old Sasha. Although I thought it sounded hokey when I heard that Egan included a PowerPoint presentation as part of the book, it actually turned out to be one of my favorite parts of the story, because Sasha's daughter and son were characters I could identify with (but that part of the story took place about a decade in the future, and I'm not convinced that using a technology that is part of today works well in a section of the book that takes place in the future, especially since technology changes so quickly now).
Ultimately, although I felt stupid when I was reading the story because it often took me a page or two to figure out who was talking (the character switches aren't clearly marked) and then another few pages to figure out the time period, the thing that made me really dislike A Visit from the Goon Squad was that the characters were so unlikeable. When I read Jonathan Franzen's Freedom earlier this year, it took me forever to finish the book because I couldn't identify with anyone and there was no one to root for in the story. In A Visit from the Goon Squad, I felt like Egan did a much better job with the "Oh look at me"-ness of postmodernism. The techniques are cool, but I never grew to like a single character-- not kleptomaniac Sasha, not cheating Bennie, not the old boyfriend who rats Sasha out, nobody. Reading the book felt like experiencing the emperor's new clothes. There was a whole lot of hype, and some genuinely cool techniques, but the book, as a whole fell short on an emotional level.