Book Review: “A Visit From the Goon Squad”

I bought Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit From the Goon Squad” for $1 at a yard sale. The sorority girl who had been the previous owner, apparently, had not deigned it worth bringing home.

Her loss.

“A Visit From the Goon Squad” released in 2010, and eventually won the Pulitzer Prize for literature. The book follows a loosely connected group of characters, jumping through time and place in order to tell a larger story about the arcs of our lives.

Each chapter features a different narrator or focal character, and the method of telling varies with each chapter. Some are straight-up literary prose, first or third person, while others are told in essay form— there’s even a chapter told through Powerpoint slides.

As you may have gathered, the book is postmodernist. Many readers will be relieved to know Egan practices a restrained form of postmodernism, free of the overindulgence which can tend to plague the genre.

To give you an idea of the intent, a winking David Foster Wallace parody-character pops up for one chapter, told in the form of an essay he has published. This character is quite clearly an ode to the author, and Egan does a passable impression of Wallace’s style. Just when the shtick is starting to wear thin (Wallacian style is pretty obnoxious when written by anyone except Wallace), the chapter ends, and Egan moves on to something else. For a novel about punk music, the writing is surprisingly restrained.

Before I am misinterpreted, this literary restraint isn’t a bad thing. Egan is precise, and pivots when she needs to. The non-sequential chapters flow thematically, moving from one character to another via minor interactions, mentions, and thoughts. This pluralism of narrative is refreshing in a world inundated by social media, where we are conditioned by our very culture to consider ourselves as the only important story.

“Goon Squad” is refreshing because it reminds us of the stories going on around us, and the knowledge that we are just a passing mention in the grand narratives of the world.

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