Jennifer Egan’s latest novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, not only won the prestigious National Book Critics Cirlce Award (which the cover of the paperback will tell you), but also an even more well-known award: the Pulitzer Prize. A creative and innovative novel that almost reads as a collection of related short stories, Goon Squad is the kind of novel I hoped to read in Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. Set in the past, present and future, Jennifer Egan’s novel is a bold and masterful feat. With an array of characters ranging from a D-list actress looking to reignite her career to a genocidal dictator, a kleptomaniac assistant to a bigwig record producer to a past-his-prime rock star, Egan’s work covers a bizarre sampling of not just American, but the world’s society. A work that would have been a disjointed mess in a lesser talent’s hands, Egan proves herself to be a powerhouse in fiction writing.
Jennifer Egan’s novel is anything but traditional. Very few, if any, of the characters would classify as “normal” people. A Visit from the Goon Squad is not so much an examination of the human condition as it is a look into contemporary culture. Those of you looking to probe into the hearts of beloved characters, fret not: with many of the people populating this novel popping up throughout, you definitely get a sense of who these characters are, what they stand for, and what they mean to one another. You also get a sense of how increased technophilia can shift the power balance between characters and generations.
Each chapter of A Visit from the Goon Squad follows a character who appeared in the chapter before it, or at least nearby. The novel opens following record-exec’s assitant Sasha on an unusual date, the next chapter follows her boss Bennie (using some particularly fabulous imagery in which Bennie sprinkles gold flakes into his coffee). After Bennie’s adult chapter comes a look into his youth and a high school rock band he was in. And so on, and so on until we come full circle and get not just a glimpse, but a deep look into the lives of several unique and engaging characters throughout their lives.
What I found the most engaging in this novel was how Egan addresses many common fears of today’s society, in particular the proliferation of technology overtaking our lives. A chapter late in the book in particular depicts a handheld device that does almost anything for you but breathe shows how the collective spirit of a powerful event can overcome the desire to be connected to our computers. Witnessing a great event becomes more important than watching the videos on the Internet an hour after it happens. Connecting with your friends in person trumps connecting with their online avatars, and that will always be a beautiful thing.
Bottom Line: If you’re feeling the fatigue from the proliferation of modern fiction and are looking for a surprising, humorous, and inspired novel look no further. With a surprisingly poignant chapter written in Microsoft PowerPoint, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad is the novel you must read. Immediately.
You can find a copy of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad at your local chain bookstore, online, or at an independent bookstore near you (click here for a list).