Title: A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Book Beginnings quote:
It began the usual way, in the bathroom of the Lassimo Hotel.
Mindy emits a single syllable of laughter -- the way his mother laughs when things have annoyed her to the point of absurdity.
Summary: The book uses interlocking narratives which circle around Bennie Salazar, an aging punk rocker and record executive, and Sasha, the passionate yet troubled young woman he employs. Although Bennie and Sasha never discover each other's secrets or very much about their pasts, the reader does, in intimate detail. Along the way readers also learn about the secret lives of a bunch of other characters whose lives intersect in some way with Sasha or Bennie or both. Their stories take us back and forth in time and to many locales: New York, San Francisco, Naples, and several locations in Africa. A Visit from the Goon Squad is about music and time, friendships and survival. It is also about the way people can influence each other, even after the most casual of touches. "In a breathtaking array of styles and tones ranging from tragedy to satire to PowerPoint, Egan captures the undertow of self-destruction that we all must either master or succumb to; the basic human hunger for redemption; and the universal tendency to reach for both-- and escape the merciless progress of time -- in the transporting realms of art and music" (book jacket).
Review: A Visit from the Goon Squad is the fifth Pulitzer Prize winner I've read this year so far. I'm on a quest to read as many of the past winners as possible and I find it next to impossible to not compare them to each other. Why, I ask myself, did A Visit from the Goon Squad win the 2011 Pulitzer? What makes it more special than other books written that year? Well, I answer for myself, for one thing part of the story was told through PowerPoint slides and anther part is crowded with abbreviated text messages (which I confess I have a hard time understanding). It certainly utilized a variety of styles and tones. If one wins an award for uniqueness, then Goon Squad deserved it. Though it was published just over ten years ago, technology has evolved a lot in that decade. I'm sure that the references to the technology of texting and email, etc. were much more novel back then, worthy of at least passing nod from the selection committee, don't you think?
The title of the book fascinated me, too. I think of a 'goon squad' as the tough guys who rough people up for mob bosses or union leaders. There was none of that in this story but people sure did seem to get roughed up for a lot of other reasons. A comment I found on-line answers my question about the title beautifully: "Goons were those thugs hired by management to beat up on workers fighting for their rights during the First Gilded Age. Egan uses a visit from the Goon Squad as a metaphor for time coming up on us unannounced and beating up on us, too" (Goodreads). Oh, yes, that is right. Since the stories circle around so much, the reader gets to see what happens to the characters as they age. With a few characters in particular what happens isn't pretty at all. The Pulitzer committee recognized the importance of time in their thoughts. They noted that the novel was an "inventive investigation of growing up and growing old in the digital age, displaying a big-hearted curiosity about cultural change at warp speed".
I was predisposed to 'like' A Visit From the Goon Squad. I love classic rock-n-roll, after all, and I am usually a fan of award books. But honestly I don't think 'like' is a term I'd use to describe my relationship with this book. In fact, at points along the way I'd probably be more inclined to use the word 'hate.' It was a tough book for me because of the inconsistency of tone by the different characters, many of whom were despicable, crass human beings. I hated the way sex was used both casually and exploitatively. Yuck. Gag! Yet. Yet, there was something about the reading experience that left me a little breathless, aware of the genius of author in the use of writing styles. Both the prose she used and the way that characters would come in and out of the story kept me alert during the whole reading experience.
I'm not sure if this review even counts as a recommendation. But there you have my thoughts. If you are intrigued, read the book jacket. I am not sure if I've ever read a more compelling book jacket synopsis of a book as this one. Read other reviews. I just took a look around the Internet at ranked lists of Pulitzers and Goon Squad isn't usually in the top thirty of anyone's list but I still think it is a worthy winner for the year it was crowned.