The Goon Squad visited; I was not at home.

What to do when you read a critically acclaimed, award-winning, highly successful and popular novel and are unmoved?

That’s my problem on finishing Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Good Squad–finishing belatedly, because (and this is a symptom of my reading experience) I read the penultimate chapter (and I should say “read” the penultimate chapter, as it’s the one “written” ["composed" seems a better term, but Egan talks about "writing" it] in PowerPoint slides) several days ago and then the book sat around giving me no sense of urgency about getting to the end–so tonight I whipped (a bit carelessly, I admit) through to the end so I could get back to Testament of Friendship and then move on to Cakes and Ale without guilt.

It’s not that I didn’t like the novel. Mostly, I enjoyed it. It’s written in polished, sometimes evocative, often witty prose. The characters are well drawn. The structure is ingenious. The shifts in point of view and the manipulation of chronology are technically skilful. The PowerPoint chapter is ingenious–but the whole time I was going through it I kept thinking of my 7th-grade autobiography project. One required component was a character sketch, and (feeling ingenious) I inserted several line drawings (sketches!), outlines of a girl’s shape (I traced a paper doll, I think), on which I wrote key words that I thought described my character. In her evaluation, my teacher wrote: “Character sketches: original. However, you have the talent to write this interestingly in paragraph or story form.” So does Jennifer Egan.

So what am I missing, or what is the novel missing? Though it’s a reasonable 340 pages, Goon Squad felt insubstantial, to me, which is not an issue of length so much as an issue of ideas. What’s the idea of the novel? Where’s the depth? It reads like interlocking short stories–which is fine (and kind of trendy, I guess, recalling Olive Kitteridge, which also, now I think about it, won the Pulitzer, and which I also found fine but not great)–but it also bespeaks a certain disengagement from the form of the novel as something distinct, doesn’t it? Is this a hopelessly old-fashioned idea, that novels are at their best when most themselves? (I know–that’s a question that can only get me into trouble, considering how amorphous the definition of “the novel” is, and how many dissimilar forms the category happily embraces.) But consider A. S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book, for example. The heft of it! The fearless exposition! And the commitment to telling us what happens, what it means, how it feels, and to crafting all the profusion of details and characters into something artistically and intellectually solid. Novels don’t all have to be as heavy as The Children’s Book, but that feeling of repletion is something I appreciate in a novel. Leaving Brooklyn gave me that feeling too, in a completely different way, both aesthetically and formally. Goon Squad kept me interested moment to moment, but it felt more like the pleasures of a tapas bar than the satisfaction of a full meal. Its unities arise from the characters, whose stories persist and overlap, and from what I take to be the book’s central thematic interest in the relationship between our past and our present–and in the moments that crack them together, unsettling our sense of our own identities, releasing sparks of often poignant memory. (Yes, I saw the epigraphs from Proust.) That all works…and yet it didn’t really work for me at that visceral level where you say “this is a book for me, a book of my life.”

I’m open, as always, to the possibility that it’s my fault–that I’m not reading this particular book well, whether because it confounds or subverts my pre-existing expectations or preferences for fiction or for some other reason. I understand that Egan wasn’t trying to write like Byatt or Schwartz and failing at it, and indeed that kind of realism is probably something she avoided deliberately, though in many respects Goon Squad is a conventionally realist novel that just plays a little with chronology and point of view (first person! second person! third person!)–and form or genre, what with the slides, and the magazine article (with footnotes!) and so on. One point of disconnection for me was certainly the general context of the stories: the punk music scene (and the musical allusions) are unfamiliar territory and hold little interest for me. Is it as simple as that? I couldn’t love the novel because I didn’t “relate” to it? I hope that’s not all that inhibited my appreciation–I like to think I’m a better reader than that! This post is very much a first response, too: I’ve only just put the book down, and though I’ve browsed back through it as I puttered away here to freshen and test my recollections of it, I know I haven’t given it the kind of attention I would give a book I were ‘officially’ reviewing. The bottom line, though, is that while I’m not sorry I read it, I have no urge to go back to it. There are books I’ve read once and become immediately, intimately bound up in them, and A Visit from the Goon Squad is just not one of them. Still, I’m curious enough about the mismatch between my experience and the buzz that I’ll probably go look up some reviews, and maybe the Tournament of Books posts about it: I feel the need for a little of what Wayne Booth calls “coduction.”

Have any of you read A Visit from the Goon Squad? What was your reaction? Are there any reviews or blog posts about it that you found particularly apt or provoking?

4 Comments to The Goon Squad visited; I was not at home.

  1. May 20, 2011 at 4:42 am | Permalink

    I’m still waiting for this to come through from the library, so I can’t make any direct comments but, what you say about the way in which the novel is structured and the whole question of being ingenious rings immediate bells because of the current production of ‘Macbeth’ at Stratford. I actually really enjoyed the piece, and it’s not often a say that about a ‘Macbeth’, but the director pulls one trick around the interval (I don’t want to say what it is for fear people reading this might be going to see it) which provoked exactly the same reaction. As a director I might have done the same thing at twenty and thought how clever I was being, but now my instant thought was “Shakespeare doesn’t need this. If he’d wanted the play structured like that he would have written it that way” immediately followed by “and as artist director of the RSC you ought to have grown through this sort of trick.” I await the Goon Squad with interest.

  2. May 24, 2011 at 4:21 am | Permalink

    I was similarly underwhelmed by the Goon Squad, and although I did find it to be a pretty great reading experience (it got me through a flight from NY to Paris) I wasn’t impressed by it as a novel overall. Admittedly, I haven’t spent much time trying to think about why. But my half-baked response has precisely to do with the epigraphs and the central “idea” of the novel: it’s an incredibly ambitious idea, but Egan doesn’t have the lush, thick vision to pull it off. What she gives us is only ever sentimental or bathetic. To keep within the framework of Annie’s Shakespeare reference, it was like watching a stand-up comic adapt Hamlet. Entertaining, sure. But it’s about a profound as a tin can.

  3. Josh's Gravatar Josh
    May 26, 2011 at 12:24 am | Permalink

    I gotta say, on the question of genre, that Egan still (notwithstanding the cover of the paperback edition) doesn’t characterize this story-cycle as a novel: at a recent reading in Philadelphia, she said the genre it’s in is the “Seventies Concept Album.”

    Me, I read a number of the stories in the venues where they were originally published and found a couple of them clichéd in topic albeit wittily executed. But I thought they fit together very well and improved immensely in section “B.” I recognized patterns of feeling in some of them that I’d experienced but hadn’t seen expressed well in U.S. fiction before—there’s, like, six Post-It flags in my hardcover copy marking my favorite apercus. And the sentimentalism worked for me: I was pretty weepy by the final two chapters. But I wouldn’t say it’s her best book. Her two prior novels, less realist, left me more impressed overall.

  4. May 26, 2011 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    Josh: Thanks for clarifying that Goon Squad isn’t really intended as a novel: so, it reads like what it is, and the pieces are artfully fit together, I agree. I would still want more depth from a story-cycle to be really impressed: is that a mistaken expectation for the genre? I don’t see why, in principle.

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Summer Reading 2014

Rohan:
1. Julie James, It Happened One Wedding
2. Dorothy Dunnett, King Hereafter
3. Miriam Toews, All My Puny Sorrows
4. Elizabeth George, Just One Evil Act
5. Dorothy Dunnett, Niccolo Rising
In progress: Ferrante, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

Maddie:
1. Judy Blume, Forever
2. Rob Thomas, Veronica Mars, an original mystery
3. John Green, Paper Towns
4. Judy Blume, Then Again Maybe I Won't
In progress: Dessen, Dreamland

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