Drink, drugs, rock’n’roll

A Visit from the Goon Squad
by Jennifer Egan

This was a book club read that I was happy we picked after having heard about it from all over the place last year.

We all enjoyed reading it and yet had a lot of negative points to raise. I think the problem is that the final chapter lets the rest of the book down, so you leave the book on a sour note and forget that you had enjoyed it up to then.

This book doesn’t have an overarching plot as such, but is rather a series of scenes in the lives of interconnecting characters, from the 1970s through to the near future. Essentially, each chapter takes a minor character from the previous chapter and tells their story, or at least part of it, sometimes completing someone else’s story in the background.

Add in the fact that time is not chronological and that each chapter is written in a different style and you get what could have been a big, dull mess. But it isn’t. Egan’s writing is engaging and she quickly but deftly creates each character such that it can be a jolt to leave their story. For a relatively small book to contain so many lives, what Egan has mostly done is to write them each one detailed scene and then a sketch of the rest of their life.

I did find, especially in earlier chapters, that it was not always clear when a section was set, which was initially frustrating but it always slots together in the end. Similarly I was not always clear who my new narrator/POV character was in relation to previous chapters but I generally figured out.

Egan constantly drops in details that will crop up again later, or that refer obliquely to time, which divided us at book club – it’s fun to spot such things but is it a bit too structured/clever clever?

These are mostly dark characters and stories, with lots of drugs and “lost time”. A lot of the characters are in or want to be in the music industry, and drink and drugs seem to be bound up in that. Some people come back from it but the attitude seemed a bit judgy to me.

But my main bugbear was the vision of future – it was really OTT, especially considering how nuanced rest of book was. Everyone communicates only via text, toddlers control fashions; I mean, really?

As long as you aren’t easily annoyed by slightly trite messages about the journey that makes up a life then I would recommend this as a quick, interesting, well written read.

First published 2010 by Random House. Paperback edition published 2011 by Corsair.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2011.