Book Review: A Visit From The Goon Squad

The last time I read a fiction book was likely sometime past calendar year. This is a function of mainly two points: 1) I generally enjoy non-fiction books, both informational and biographical styles and 2) I felt out of touch with what fiction would resonate with me. Over time, I found that I ended up reading less during the work week when my book-in-band was a non-fiction book, and reserved much of my reading time to the weekends. I think this stems from my level of energy when I get home from work - when reading non-fiction I want to capture and retain information, take on new concepts I haven’t encountered previously, or derive lessons from the text. After a tiring day at work, this is much harder to do. On the other hand, fiction often reads as recreation. I find myself more engaged when reading during the work week, enjoying the story, symbolism, and emotion. I also think my cautiousness to being stuck with a bad fiction book is a bit overblown. I’ve had this implicit rule that I always finish a book I’ve started. This is akin to needing to finish all the food on my plate as a kid - it’s a bit silly and there’s no good reason for the rule. So my (early) New Year’s Resolution (one of them, at least), is to read more fiction. This works in two ways: I get back into reading more frequently during the work week and I diversify my reading material. I need a little spark in my non-fiction life.

I didn’t know much about this book prior to reading it, other than it had won a Pulitzer. I figured this was as good a place as any to start. And I really enjoyed it (surprise). Separate from the story, I’m a sucker for non-linear timelines. It gives the author so many chances to dangle bits of character information and fragments of plot to the reader. Egan does this very well, intertwining trivial details for one character or timeline with big plot points previously observed or yet to come. It underlines a theme in the book, of the ripple effect a single person or event can have on another life. Each chapter is a story told by a new characters, which links back to another section of the book. It starts and ends with the same character, although the perspectives are a generation apart.

A refreshing aspect of the rotating narration perspectives is that each chapter has a unique voice, grounded in the character and the story they wish to tell. This enables Egan to flaunt her writing ability. The chapter presented in an celebrity profile format is as engaging as the third-person narration of the uncle touring the streets of Naples, (supposedly) looking for his aloof niece. The cadence of the book changes from chapter to chapter, which I found reinforced the notion of each character as an independent entity, considering the self the main role while all others were merely supporting cast members.

Ultimately, this book is about the passage of time, and how we get from A to B. How characters live, grow, forget or spurn their youth, try to recapture it, and how many lives can be lived in a single lifetime. Time is a good, and we will all spend time in its company.

My notes while reading this book:

  • this girl, Sasha, is a kleptomaniac. She seems to steal to either retain memory / tangible fragments of her life, or to feel power over her subject for a fleeting moment
    • We learn later she’s been doing this since 13. The girls she did it with did it because they were bored - she did it because she loved it
    • She steals a wallet from her own uncle when he comes to find her in Naples. However, his persistence to find her after she eludes him results in her returning the wallet
  • She doesn’t believe in therapy. Or rather, she wishes it will work but is still guarded, preventing actual progress. She’s conflicted - she’s there by her own will but needs to feel some sort of power over Coz, her therapist, by being guarded and not forthcoming about her true feelings
  • Bennie is constantly badgered by shame and regrets that are triggered by random acts throughout the day. He too sees a therapist, although it seems more practical than him figuring he’s mentally unstable
  • Bennie meets Lou through his sleazy interactions with Bennie as a high school kid. Will Bennie subconsciously model his behavior after Lou’s? Womanizing, immature, but powerful in the industry
  • Lou infects his innocent son with his perspective on women, and that they’re all crazy. Lou is enthralled with his dad like an eleven year old is. When Lou is angry, his son feels he must be angry as well.
  • rhea felt like the odd one out when they were teens. She was so self conscious of her freckles. Her best friend Jocelyn had Lou, and had taken drugs and was intimate with him. Her friends were all involved with their various partners, except for her. Yet Rhea ends up as a mother, and Jocelyn ends up an addiction resenting Lou and her vanished youth. She feels that Rhea had the best outcome when they were friends, always keeping stable
  • Everyone has anger as an adult from their time as kids - Scotty to Bennie’s success, Jocelyn to Lou
  • The “goon” in the title is time. A character references a phrase I haven’t heard before: “Time is a goon.” This book (sort of) deals with how one goes from A to B (In this case, A being ones younger self and B being the present self). Or rather, we witness both A and B, and get fragments of the transition. Many characters themselves don’t know how A mutated into B.
  • La Doll and Kitty Jackson’s situation reminds me a bit of Chuck Palahniuk. Each advance in the story only deepens the level of desperation and ridiculousness - two formerly powerful women stooping to running a PR campaign for genocidal general because of their unwavering desire to reclaim their fame and power ushered in by two distinct but equally horrible falls from grace.
  • Of course Kitty would start trouble with the general! The foreshadowing, in retrospect, was obvious. She was someone who would “take no bullshit” and she discusses right before they meet the general how she couldn’t push herself to lie when that’s what success in her industry demanded
  • My two favorite chapters: the retrospective of Jules’ time with Kitty Johnson and the second-person account of Robert Freeman Jr. at NYU with Sasha post-Naples
  • Sasha’s time in Naples is sad, though outwardly she portrays herself as an independent world traveler, without the need of help from her uncle who comes to find her. It’s representative of Sasha as a person - someone who wants so desperately to be fiercely independent, but covers up the loneliness and sadness she feels with a touch exterior and fantastic adventures. Her personality ensnares all those around her, although her strong presence is a bit thinner than what her demeanor implies
  • We find out later from Sasha’s kids that
    • Jules actually wrote the book following the guitarist from the conduits
    • The kids don’t like Sasha much
    • She married a doctor, which seems at odds with who she was growing up
    • They lived in Pakistan for awhile
    • Sasha married Drew, the guy who went swimming with Robert Freeman Jr. (who died while swimming)
    • Sasha is the protective parent in this family - Drew is relatively unhappy and his daughter can tell when he’s not in a good mood
    • And it comes full circle, back to Sasha’s date with the boy Alex that she stole the wallet from. He’s talking to Bennie about working as a sound mixer