I’ve been reading immensely more lately, but not reviewing much; not sure why. But A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan demands to be written about. Which lots of people have, it’s been reviewed to death, mostly positively, and won all sorts of prizes. It gave me as intense a book-reading experience as I’ve had in years; I’m still not 100% sure I like it.

The book is unique; saying that it centers on some people with mental-health problems who work in the music biz is maybe beside the point; because the point might be the unconventional virtuosity of its construction.

The narrative is nonlinear in time and voice and mode; one chapter, famously, is a PowerPoint, which as I write is featured (via SlideShare) with a link from the author’s Web site. The weirdness works for me; it seems unobtrusively there to serve Ms Egan’s astonishing cleverness in assembling and orchestrating the characters and stories. There isn’t a chapter that isn’t full of telling turns of phrase and throat-grabbing insights about the really stupid but occasionally redemptive things that men and women do. And by the way, the PowerPoint chapter is perfectly plausible where it sits, not jarring in the slightest; the essential lameness of the medium adds to its force.

Another good thing is the use of music — rock in general and punk in particular — as an organizing principle, teasing order out of the storytelling chaos. The references are erudite and affectionate, and speaking as one for whom punk was once a lifesaving force, touched my heart.

Having said all that, I have a few gripes with Ms Egan. At the end of the day, this is another story about self-absorbed Manhattanites with drug problems and two thirds of the way through, she had mostly failed to make me actually care about them. I was stuck with the feeling that they more or less deserved what they’d brought on themselves. At some point, anxiety becomes boring.

She sort of dug the story out of that hole around the point of the PowerPoint chapter, which turns the redemption-vs-self-destruction knob a little more heavily in redemption’s direction.

Then I had another gripe with the last chapter, which first of all could have been omitted, secondly could have been shortened to focus on the manager and the musician, and finally really didn’t need the sci-fi angle.

But hey; there aren’t many books that’ve seized my attention this hard or made me think this much, and it’s one of the few, first read in the second half of my life, that I’ll probably read again.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: John Cowan (Mar 16 2012, at 07:43)

From "Theory and Practice of Editing New Yorker Articles" (1937) by Wolcott Gibbs:

24. Writers also have an affection for the tricky or vaguely comic last line. "Suddenly Mr. Holtzman felt tired" has appeared on far too many pieces in the last ten years. It is always a good idea to consider whether the last sentence of a piece is legitimate and necessary, or whether it is just an author showing off.

[The same applies to last chapters. Tolkien was persuaded, I think wisely, to drop the last chapter of The Lord of the Rings.]


From: Scott Parkerson (Mar 16 2012, at 17:08)

I, for one, appreciate the the shout-out to a great Tubes tune in the title of this post.


From: Nick Carr (Mar 17 2012, at 17:27)

It's really a beautifully imagined and written book. I think it needed a chapter after the PowerPoint chapter, which was brilliant and heartbreaking.


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