A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

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A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: Full of clever literary stylish tricks but this never detracts from wonderful storytelling. Using the music industry as a lens to explore time, this is an episodic and highly amusing collection of inter-related stories - like a concept album but without the tedious bits!
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: March 2011
Publisher: Corsair
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1849010337

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Apparently there's a saying that 'time's a goon' - no, I'd never heard of it and to be fair, neither had the first character to whom it is said in Jennifer Egan's 'A Visit from the Goon Squad', but together with a pair of epigraphs from Proust, it's clear that time is very definitely what is being explored here. Egan's subject area is all loosely based around the music world. Her central character, if one can be said to exist, is Bennie Salazar, a music mogul who we encounter both directly and tangentially at various stages of his up and down career. Goon Squad is also the title of an Elvis Costello track, continuing the music theme as Egan uses the music industry as a lens to examine time.

For a myriad of reasons this book could have gone wildly wrong and been thwarted by its ambition. It could so easily have been a triumph of form over substance. To give you some idea, it is not really a novel, more a collection of related short stories or episodes that run back and forward in time. Certainly it's not a linear narrative. Each chapter is written in a different literary way - some will be first person narratives, some third person and even one that is second person. One chapter is presented as a newspaper/magazine article; one is set in the near future and uses a lot of text speak; and one, most memorably is presented in the format of a PowerPoint presentation. Without soul to the book, these would have made it at best 'interesting'. But Egan's story has that mystery X factor in spades and it's a terrific, enjoyable and often very funny read.

The stories take in many locations, from San Francisco to New York, from Naples to Africa. In terms of time span, we travel from the 1970s to sometime in the near future. Each vignette story is almost perfectly mastered to ensure that the reader is engrossed in the lives of the people covered. Some characters re-appear at various stages of their lives and a character that is a walk on part in one story may find themselves the lead role in the next, usually at a different point in time.

The more I am writing about it, the more turgid and complex it is sounding, but that simply isn't the reading experience. It's totally entertaining and enthralling. It's rather like listening to a favourite album of beautiful songs. There is a common theme here, but each story is, like a song, an end in itself. The fact that I could happily have read a full book on virtually every chapter is testament to this. Inevitably, it kind of goes with the territory with short stories though that they always leave you wanting more, but in a good way.

Egan's investigation of time includes not only the inevitable ageing and looking back over the plans of youth and how life really turned out, but also things like the rise of technology. Bennie struggles with technology which is why what might come over as annoying writer gimmicks such as text speak and the PowerPoint chapter work so well. The shifts in style of each chapter should be irritating but, at least to me, they aren't. They seem entirely natural.

If episodic stories are not your thing, then this might leave you frustrated, but Egan displays a mastery of storytelling. There's plenty of gentle humour here too. In fact almost every page it seems had me at least smiling if not laughing. While the worlds of music publishing and publicity - which gets a very funny airing - are not the worlds in which most of us live, the characters and personalities are all flawed to a degree and so come over as very real.

Much like your favourite album, no matter what your musical taste, is best listened to than explained, so too this book is better read. Yes, in literary terms it is clever, but it's also a thoroughly enjoyable and fun read too. That's not an easy combination to achieve.

Our huge thanks to the kind folk at Corsair for inviting The Bookbag to review A Visit from the Goon Squad. We also have a review of Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan.

For more clever literary tricks in the media world, then check out the equally fabulous [The Afterparty by Leo Benedictus]].

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Buy A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan at Amazon.com.


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Booklists.jpg A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan is in the Orange Prize 2011.