February has been a good month for reading books. My goal is set for reading a minimum of 30 books every year–I’ve read nine during the year’s snowiest month, after completing Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. I blazed through it in all of four days. Can I keep up that pace? Only time will tell.
Egan’s book has been on my list of must-read titles for awhile. The book generated a buzz when it first came out. Also, I read her novel, Look at Me, after seeing her in person at the 2011 Boston Book Festival, and it was a terrific read. Of course with me, fiction is often shunted aside,while other nonfiction titles cut the line.
After finally reading it, I can see why critics loved it, yet I was somewhat disappointed; I found Goon Squad to be less entertaining and affecting than my first Egan experience. That is to say that critics, who love to levitate above the hoi polloi, lap up writing and novelists that pander and play to trends, especially if there’s a nod to technology, and an offer of a few new literary tricks. I’m not saying that Egan’s intent was to pander, as some of the interviews I’ve read related to the book indicate that her tack for Goon Squad was likely aligned with her desire to write a “more ambitious” novel, which often means changing things up a bit.
For instance, chapter 12 in the book (the next-to-last chapter), is a 75-page PowerPoint presentation, “Great Rock and Roll Pauses,” by 12-year-old Alison Blake, about of course, great rock and roll pauses. It’s also a flash forward in the book’s timeline. Alison projects into the future, to the year 2020-something, and considers the life of her mother, Sasha, her father, a doctor, and her brother, Lincoln, who is obsessed with pauses in rock and roll songs and begins meticulously cataloging them.
Using circles, squares, rectangles, triangles, trapezoids, charts and speech bubbles linked by lines and arrows, Alison catalogs her family’s many quirks and dysfunctions. The family dynamics and conflicts among members are nothing that juicy or exceeding anything common to one of John Updike’s novels. I’m guessing that Egan, in a nod to post-modern literary tropes, opted to throw readers for a loop (and garner the attention of the aforementioned critics). Pity the layout and design person at Knopf, prepping it for production.
Novelists always have to find a way to represent the march of time, especially when they give back story to current, or future events. Writers have successfully employed a variety of techniques and Egan’s no different in this regard. However, I found it difficult to keep track of who was who, especially at the start of certain chapters, before the character became clear and I knew that Egan was referring to someone I’d been introduced to before.
Goon Squad won a Pulitzer in 2011 and was the winner of the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, beating out Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom.
Egan herself mentioned in an interview how winning a Pulitzer involves luck and is really a random selection. It also offers a writer an incredible cache, and often helps in selling books and bumping them up the writing pantheon.
Goon Squad is about rock and roll and that musical genre is a connecting thread throughout the novel. One of the primary characters, Bennie Salazar, is seen as a successful music producer, at least that’s how we meet him in chapter one. Via time travel backwards, we find him as a high school senior, playing bass (not particularly well) in a local punk rock band that lands a gig at Mabuhay Gardens, the “home” club for punk legends Dead Kennedys, the Dils, and touring acts, The Dead Boys and X. It’s there that Bennie meets a well-connected producer, who happens to be diddling one of his friends and members of his punk rock posse, and eventually, he’s a rock and roll celebrity, too, running a label and successfully producing cutting-edge talent for Sow’s Ear Records. And then, of course, it all comes crumbling down when Bennie serves his corporate controllers cow pies in a steam tray. The context is that since they are asking Bennie to “feed the people shit” (to buoy sales and the bottom line), he wants them to “Try eating some yourselves and see how it tastes!” A glorious way to get fired, I guess.
A former bandmate during Bennie’s seminal punk period, Scotty Hausmann, the guitar player for his high school band, the Flaming Dildos, reminded me of Jonathan Franzen’s guitar-playing character in Freedom, Richard Katz. Like Katz, Hausmann also experiences a rock and roll rebirth, after being left for history’s dustbin and to be forgotten forever.
I read Franzen’s Freedom last August. It was a terrific read and spoke to issues of personal liberty far more broadly than the book’s one word title would intimate. While Franzen’s book had a fantastic flow, as all three of his novel’s I’ve read of his have, it also had a depth and breadth that Egan’s book was lacking. Both novels had obvious parallels, involving interpersonal conflicts and crises and the evolution that comes from life lived. Egan’s focused more on how the march of time can be cruel and in fact the title comes from a line uttered by one of the characters, an aging rocker, when he says, “Time’s a goon, right?”
Critics lauded Egan’s book as “pitch perfect” and “intellectually stimulating and moving.” Where Franzen dealt with them by taking us deeper into his characters and allowing readers to connect and empathize, Egan’s characters seemed like mere holograms, and cliches. I found Goon Squad lacking that spark I’m seeking when I read fiction. It’s fiction, I get it, but it’s got to be believable for me to enjoy it and it just rang hollow throughout much of the narrative.
Yet, who am I to criticize a writer and a literary rock star like Egan? She’s a successful novelist and with Goon Squad, she can always carry around those two awards she won for it; which is where I was disappointed–I just expected more from the book, after reading the reviews and enjoying the previous Egan-penned novel.
Maybe I need to be more cognizant of Public Enemy’s warning and remember, “don’t believe the hype.”