This week in Advancement, Jason Hartley reviews the Jennifer Egan novel “A Visit From the Good Squad”—with a special focus on one page, in particular.
Jennifer Egan just won a Pulitzer Prize for her novel “A Visit From the Goon Squad” and this week HBO announced that they have optioned it. Some time back, I wrote a blog post about the book, which I thought would be appropriate for this column. (A pillar of the Advanced Genius Theory is that it is impossible to declare that one thing is good while another is bad, so it’s best to take the Advanced Genius’s word for it.)
I blogged about it because people love the book and are particularly amazed that it is nonlinear and explores different styles of storytelling. I found those aspects to be the strength of the book, too, but it’s not as if she was breaking any new ground. Additionally, I thought the characters were too often clichés masked by a few superficial details. So who’s right? I have no idea. But here’s what I wrote…
Writers spend years of their lives working on a book, then someone writes a 500-word review of it, 65% of which is a recap of plot points. So I thought I’d write a review of a single, somewhat random page of Jennifer Egan’s sometimes amazing but regularly flawed “A Visit From the Goon Squad.”
We start with a cliché, the perfect country club woman whose “prodigious childbearing had left no mark on her narrow waist and well-tanned biceps.” (You don’t often hear of the effects of childbearing on biceps.) This woman represents Crandale, the white-bread destination for other clichés, especially hedge-fund managers, though the hedge-fund manager doesn’t appear until the bottom of the page. Tennis is used to establish the uncomfortable surroundings for Stephanie, who “came from nowhere,” but unlike her husband, Bennie, she is from a Midwestern suburban nowhere. (Bennie is from an urban nowhere.) But Egan makes an interesting choice to make Stephanie have a history with tennis—she “achieved a certain greatness at around age thirteen—though she falls back onto cliché, comparing the “greasy burgers” of Stephanie’s youth with Crandale’s salade nicoise (italics hers).
Later, Stephanie and Bennie have gin and tonics while watching fireflies and listening to a pianist playing “harmless melodies on a shining upright.” Like the childbearing biceps bit, I find the word harmless a strange choice; is it a value judgment? Should a pianist play harmful melodies while people have cocktails? Is there even such a thing as a harmful melody?
We find out that the couple has moved to Crandale to mark Bennie’s success in the music business, and its value is put in terms of its distance (physical and mental) from his life growing up in his urban nowhere and his “dark eyed” grandmother. We are meant to realize that this is just another nowhere, but the women have “shining ponytails,” not dark eyes. This is perhaps meaningful, but not to me.
At the end of the page, we find out that the hedge-fund manager is a bit more than just a type, in that he appreciates the band that made Bennie’s reputation. This is a nice touch because it makes Bennie fit in, but in a way that would make him extremely uncomfortable. Bennie, after all, had been the bassist for the punk band the Flaming Dildos (a fake band name that sounds fake, though I’ve not seen many fake bands with names that don’t sound fake), and while hedge funds and dildos are often associated with other, the punk in Bennie would never want to be approved of by a hedge-fund manager named Duck.
And so the page ends with Duck asking whatever happened to Bosco, the guitarist for the band Bennie discovered. Bosco is recording an album, Bennie tells Duck, but leaves out important details. That happens on the top of the next page, so that’s off limits.
As for the book as a whole, I liked it okay. I did feel like there were a lot of characters I’ve seen before in Dead Milkmen videos, but in some cases I guess that was the point. It’s very possible that something is going on with these characters that is more interesting than I realize. But I just couldn’t help thinking that Egan could do better than the runaway with uncaring parents, the suicide, self-destructive musicians, record producers named Lou with underage girlfriends, and country-club types who befriend people from nowhere only if they make a good tennis partner (and have dark-eyed husbands they can sleep with).
I am in the minority in some of my criticisms, but I think some are valid. My biggest problem was that a lot of importance was attached to things like “greasy burgers,” which are mildly evocative, but only of something so familiar that it has no meaning. Where’s the beef, you might say.
Though I found a lot of the book irritating, I would recommend it. It’s complex and moving, plus Egan creates a touching PowerPoint presentation, which is something of a rare feat. (Steve Jobs and Al Gore can do it, but not many others.) Her method of storytelling is compelling enough that the characters in the story might suffer from the comparison. If the characters had been as unpredictable as each new chapter’s style is, A Visit From the Goon Squad might have been one of the best books I’ve ever read. Instead, it’s like the Grateful Dead: okay, but I don’t see what the fuss is all about.
For more on Advancement, check out Jason’s book The Advanced Genius Theory.