When I first picked up A Visit from the Goon Squad, I didn't know much about it other than it had won the Pulitzer prize and that there was one chapter done completely in PowerPoint. Usually I don't take chances on buying books that I'm not completely sure I'll like, but I had an Amazon gift card and I needed some summer reading, so I decided to give it a shot. Besides, the blurb on Amazon said that it was pulsing with music on every page, and I'm a big sucker for music in books. What could possibly go wrong?
The answer is, sadly, a lot. I guess, after the disaster that was Wolf Hall, I should have known better than to read a book just because it won a prize. A Visit from the Goon Squad was disappointing in so many ways. There were glimmers of potential and a few good moments scattered here and there, but they were lost in the overwhelming sense of mediocrity and self-conscious hipness that characterized the novel.
First of all, the writing in this book was only mediocre, which is not something I expect from a Pulitzer winner. The tone of the writing was detached and almost neutral. While this could have worked for a book so focused on self-destruction and faded glory, Egan didn't quite pull it off. Instead of that detached style conveying the disillusionment and faded glory of the characters, it only serves to separate the reader from the action and keeps us from connecting with or feeling for the characters.
The reader is also kept from connecting with the characters by the book's poor characterization and use of voice. Each chapter is told from the perspective of a different character at a different point in time. While fragmentation is one of my favorite literary devices when used properly, it is only effective when the characters' voices are distinct enough to allow the reader distinguish between them. Sadly, all of the character in this book sound the same, with the exception of the one chapter narrated by a punk teen and the two narrated by madmen (and even the two madmen were pretty darn similar). If you are going to make the focus of your book the varied and intersecting lives of a few generations of interconnected people, you should at least make those people and their lives different enough that the reader can tell them apart. I think Egan meant for there to be "Aha!" moments when you realized how people had influenced each other over time, but as it is I spent more time trying to remember who everyone was and how they were related than actually caring about them.
My biggest problem with this book is that it is too self-consciously hip and modern. With every name-drop, use of slang or text speech, reference to drug use, or casual mention of recent events, I can feel the author trying very hard to be cool, relevant, and contemporary. I hate to say this, but if I can feel you trying to be cool, you aren't. The music, which the blurb on my book said would be central to the book, is incidental and mostly used as an excuse to name-drop and sound hip. It's like the author is screaming through the pages "Look at me. I'm so modern and cool. Maybe if I put in enough pop-culture references someone will find my work relevant." Now, pop-culture references don't automatically make a book bad, nor does writing for a specific time and place. What this books misses, though, is everything else that makes a book worthwhile, like realistic characters, an interesting plot, or a discernible purpose.
There were some instances where I felt like Egan could have really hit it out of the park and written a book that had meaningful commentary on modern life. The chapter in PowerPoint, for instance, could have been really great. Sadly, she didn't use the format to its full potential. I was expecting the PowerPoint chapter to be something corporate, a subtle and meaningful twist on a modern form of business communication, a mix of company presentation and personal reflection. Instead, the PowerPoint is simply the format in which a young girl keeps her diary, meaning that it's basically a more visual version of every other chapter. It was still one of my favorite chapters, but that had nothing to do with the format. When you add something interesting and revolutionary like that, it should be because it is in some way necessary, not just because you want to show off. Like so many of the other modern things in this book, this just gave me the impression that Egan was writing to impress. She did a great job of showing off her formal skills, but inside that formal structure the book was hollow.
For a story about aging punks, the march of time, and the inevitability of death, A Visit from the Goon Squad lacks any real profound moments. The biggest realization is that everyone eventually gets old and dies, but that realization is generalized and cliched, rather than poignant or meaningful. Though it is concerned with being relevant and modern, A Visit from the Goon Squad fails to have anything truly new to say, and is therefore completely forgettable.
Rating: 2 stars
Mediocre writing, lack of characterization, no discernible meaning, self-conscious, labored, forgettable.