A Visit From The Goon Squad is a 2011 Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Jennifer Egan. It’s a novel that’s almost a collection of short stories, about a group of characters who are generally involved with the American music scene, either as fans, performers, producers, or tangential staff. Minor characters in one chapter became central in another; or we see characters as contrasting people at different stages in their lives.
The book isn’t really about music, which was my impression when I bought it. The real subject is time and change. Time is the ‘goon’ of the title, sneaking in to build people up and break them down, making them central to the action one moment, peripheral the next. There is interesting use of fiction technique to reflect this changeability. We get tenses shifting between past and present. Then there is the varied style of narration, in first person, third person, with one chapter even in second person, a very tricky perspective that puts ‘you’, the reader, as the central character. You are Rob, a troubled young man involved in a strained love-triangle. After a hectic night of partying, ‘you’ take the unfortunate decision to go for a swim in New York’s East River at dawn. As hypothermia sets in, Rob has an out of body experience, which is one of the book’s most powerful reflections on the way there is no stable, definitive viewpoint in life’s changing story. I was reminded of the ideas of Jung, where individuals might see things from an individual standpoint in their waking hours, only to enter a kind of shared unconscious in their dreams.
Anyway, if this all sounds deep and meaningful, that’s what this book is – an overtly clever reflection on shifting perspective. Obvious sophistication makes A Visit From The Goon Squad a good candidate for a big prize like the Pulitzer. You could easily use this book in a writing class. Impressive as its technical accomplishments might be, they were also the source of potential reservations I felt about the book. After all, some of the best novels are deceptive in their simplicity. Jennifer Egan’s writing, with all its clever fiction tricks, does not have deceptive simplicity.
That being said, I still enjoyed A Visit From The Goon Squad. There was much humanity in the writing – poignant, recognisable moments of seeing others, or ourselves, before and after time has done its work – and those moments made me think of life experience rather than some technical aspect of fiction writing.
This is not one of my favourite books of all time. Too much of the mechanism of writing is on display for that. But it is still a clever and compelling novel.