I was drawn in by the hype for this one. A Pulitzer Prize winning novel with the mass appeal of rock stars, drugs, warfare, and celebrity culture? How couldn’t I like this one? Multiple friends recommended it as well, and I found this copy for less than four dollars. There was no reason not to read it, and sometimes that’s all you really need for a book.
In my case, the hype wasn’t real.
I actually started this book in May, and only finished it some days ago. It’s not a particularly long read, but an easy one to ignore. For at least a month it sat untouched on my bookshelf in favor of other books, other hobbies, even household chores.
This isn’t to say that A Visit from the Goon Squad was a terrible book. The writing quality is there, and Jennifer Egan has a knack for rendering individual voices. In a book with multiple perspectives, this is absolutely essential. From the painful hope of Scotty Hausmann to Sasha’s paranoia, it’s clear that Egan tries hard to make her characters memorable. Her attention to detail is paramount as well, especially when describing the seedy and grotesque.
She gaped in frozen disbelief as her guests shrieked and staggered and covered their heads, tore hot, soaked garments from their flesh and crawled over the floor like people in medieval altar paintings whose earthly luxuries have consigned them to hell.
Additionally, I have to give credit where credit is due for the famous PowerPoint chapter. It comes towards the end of the book and motivated me to finish. I’m curious to know how this style would have read as a longer piece, and it was one of the only examples of quirkiness I felt paid off.
Because, by God, this book is irredeemably quirky. Each character is ‘zany’ or ‘wacky’ in some way, or their situations are so over the top that it reads farcical at times. This juxtaposed with a relatively plaintive writing style, especially when Egan writes in third person, felt dull and tiresome. There’s an entire chapter written with heavy annotated footnotes, which just gave me flashbacks to my failed reading of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Characters with little to do and far less to say, such as Sasha’s uncle Ted, are given quite a bit of breathing room to expand upon their vague, middle-class gripes. This isn’t to say that such material can’t be interesting, but the constant shifting focus from one character to another gives the narrative little weight.
In fact, this is probably my greatest gripe with the novel overall. To what do these snippets and voices add up? The ending attempts to bring the novel together, bringing characters back from the beginning, but so much time has passed and so many other voices have been heard, that there is no payoff to an ending like this. The themes of the book feel just as scattered, and what results is a damp, middling collection of related short stories, rather than any cohesive novel.
This was not for me. I find it hard to imagine what the Pulitzer committee saw in this novel, because even the frankness of Egan’s writing did not feel particularly memorable. In fact, I may read the runners-up for the Pulitzer from that year just to compare. They can’t have been all bad, right?