Tuesday, August 2, 2011

A Visit from the Goon Squad

Book Review

"A Visit from the Goon Squad" by Jennifer Egan. I decided to read this after a discussion with a friend. At the time, I had plenty of other books to read, so I put it on my list for later. Then, when I thought I was ready, I looked it up at my local library.

It wasn't available. I had to request it.

And I had to wait.



Not years.

I finally got notice that it was waiting for me. I promptly picked up and started it.

Slowly. It started slowly. Not because nothing was happening, but because I was having a hard time finding a frame of reference for what I was reading.

2011 Pulitzer Prize Winner

I don't think I have ever read a Pulitzer Prize winner before. Or not knowingly. After glancing at the titles of the last fifteen years worth of winners, I'm pretty sure I have not read any other recent winner.

I haven't even heard of most of them.

This made me wonder what criteria they use to determine a winner.

I admit freely that I am not an expert in literature. Or fine literature. Or poor literature, for that matter. I just like to read and want to fill in the gaps in my knowledge of literature.

Reading a Pulitzer Prize winner has now filled in a gap.

I wasn't really aware of this gap until now. I wasn't really trying to fill this unrealized gap. Nonetheless, it is now filled.

And thank goodness. I'm not sure what I would find in these other Pulitzer winners of the past decade or two.

Clearly, "A Visit from the Goon Squad" is inventive. It is clearly crafted. It is well written.

It is also a little hard to follow. The timeline is disconnected, and only through continued reading does the reader finally get a sense of the current time. This is difficult, since the setting is presented in a rather sparse way. Narrators change at each chapter, without identifying themselves. Directly or indirectly.

The characters are quite "interesting". None are perfect and pristine.  Each seems to have his or her own foibles.  Who doesn't?  But some of these foibles are a little unusual, not quite what I think of as "mainstream" idiosyncrasies.  I'm guessing there are plenty of people out in the world who can identify with some of these characters, but I had trouble doing so.   Granted, my exposure to big, wide world may be a bit limited.  Reading about such lifestyles like these, assuming they do exist, is probably better than never knowing about them at all.

The plot is hard to discern, certainly not until after the entire book is read.  In fact, throughout reading the book, I found myself asking what it was all about.  With a disconnected timeline and different narrators, connections between characters and times doesn't come until most or all of the book is read.  A few lifelines are thrown the reader's way occasionally.  Even though a new narrator is presented in each chapter, somewhere within each chapter is some mention of at least one of the characters already introduced.  This wasn't immediately apparent, but I finally caught on.

Without a continuous timeline to guide me, I started looking for the setting of each chapter.  Unfortunately, the setting is almost non-existent, except in an off-hand way.  Time and place are given very light treatment through the same brief narrative descriptions.  The reader is left to piece things together on his or her own.

Much of the discussion between characters and within themselves revolves around music. Musicians' music, not casual listeners' music. I didn't get much from the detailed discussions of the specifics of the music. I'm not familiar with music or musicians or promoters. I found it difficult to understand or care about the music references. I did identify, on a most basic level, with the pauses in music. But only because I have noticed small pauses in some of my favorite songs. Maybe I learned something more about pauses through reading this.

Late in the book, one whole chapter is presented in Powerpoint slides. Yes, slides. This was different. At first I resented it. It seemed too easy. Too new. Too hip. Too "of the current times". Too attention getting. But now I have come to see this as a genuine way to present the narrator of that chapter. It was her way of written communication. It ended up working.  This time.  I hope I never see it again in another novel. It has been done. Leave it that way.

This book takes work to read. Nothing is readily handed to the reader.

Eventually, the plot and characters all do relate back and the loop is closed, but it is loop left filled with lots of gaps and holes.  That loosely knitted loop takes the reader through the themes of deceiving oneself and yet wanting redemption for past actions or inactions.  These are not so far from what real people deal with all the time.

This is book for those who enjoy reading to discover. Discover the plot. Discover the relationships between characters. Discover the timeframe. Discover the setting. Discover the purpose.

And, as I said before, this book is inventive. It is a worthwhile read, if you enjoy this kind of thing. For anyone looking for a nice, tight and tidy timeline and plot, don't bother. But if you like to be intrigued and don't mind a rather hefty dose of less than pleasant personality eccentricities, give it a shot. It is certainly interesting.

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