A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Goon Squad cover

There are so many reasons I could have hated this book. First, as many other reviewers have pointed out, it could easily have been titled White People Problems: The Book. This book is about white people who listen to painfully hip music, have relationship drama, and generally complain about how they’re getting old and it totally sucks. I didn’t like a single character, now that I think about it – not that they weren’t interesting, but they were all utterly unsympathetic and as a result I cared very little about their problems.

The shifting perspectives were confusing, but got better once I started thinking of the book as a collection of short stories about people who just happened to know each other in some way. But it was frustrating, because as soon as I would start to be interested in a character, the chapter would end and I would have to figure out who I was reading about now.

I’d actually read a portion of this book before, I discovered. The chapter “Selling the General” also appeared in the short story anthology This is Not Chick Lit, so I was completely thrown off when I realized that I was reading it for the second time here. And maybe it was just because I had read it before in a different book, but that particular chapter didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the story. It had a completely different tone and was much too bizarre for my tastes, and I was glad when it was over.

And then of course, as everyone who reviews this book is obligated to point out, there is a chapter written entirely as a Powerpoint. It is almost universally hated, but it was particularly difficult for me to get through this chapter. I spent two years at college working as a public speaking tutor, which meant that a good portion of my job involved helping students with Powerpoint presentations and explaining to them why it’s a bad idea to put ten bullet points on one slide. It wasn’t fun at all, and I actually winced when I got to the Powerpoint chapter – in fact, I came very close to skipping it entirely, and don’t understand why Egan had to do it at all.

There’s also a chapter that takes place in the future (I know, I know). As far as I can tell, it exists mostly so Egan can show us that she’s read Brave New World.

And the title bothered me. It refers to the idea that time is a goon, an observation that is made exactly twice in the entire book. I don’t know if this is true, but it seemed like Egan came up with the title and the story separately, and just shoved those two lines into the book to make the title work.

So with all these complaints in mind, why three stars instead of two or one? Because despite all these annoyances, I still liked the book. Once I got the hang of the shifting perspectives, I liked how each of the characters connected to the others, and I liked the little views into their lives at different points in time. Like I said, nobody is particularly admirable, but everyone is interesting. And Egan writes beautifully, which made her Illustrated Guide to First World Problems enjoyable even when I was annoyed by the subject matter. And she makes a pretty decent Powerpoint.

Verdict: three out of five stars

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

  1. I’m pretty sure this was added to 1001 Books You must Read Before you die in 2010.

  2. I think it was too, but I’m still working off the original list, first because of stubbornness, and also because I can’t be expected to keep up if they won’t stop changing it.

  3. I was really thrown by the fact that Egan presents this as a novel, when certain chapters were published as short stories elsewhere. I have nothing against compiling your short stories and linking them together: awesome! But claiming it’s something different rubbed me the wrong way.

    • Yeah, I know that authors will sometimes take an excerpt from their novel and publish it as a short story, but since the chapters in this book already feel like short stories, the book really didn’t seem like a novel. It was this weird novel/story collection hybrid, and I had a hard time getting into the rhythm of it.

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