“A Visit from the Goon Squad” by Jennifer Egan – The Rock and Roll Life

“A Visit from the Goon Squad” by Jennifer Egan  (2010)  – 274 pages, but one of the stories is a 75-page PowerPoint slide show presentation with a lot of white space and only a small amount of actual writing which only counts for about 10 pages of actual story, so the effective number of pages is only about 209 pages.

This summer has been an excellent summer for me for reading new North American stories with first “Ether” by Evgenia Citkowitz which has edgy stories about people in the movie business, then “The Imperfectionists” by Tom Rachman which has satisfying stories about people in the newspaper business, and now “A Visit from the Goon Squad” by Jennifer Egan which has unique stories about people in the rock-and-roll business.  The stories in “Ether” are separate stories and a novella, the stories in “The Imperfectionists” are separate stories all about people who work at one newspaper office, while the stories in “A Visit to the Goon Squad” are truly linked stories that together form a complete novel.   I had not read Evgenia Citkowitz and Tom Rachman before, but I discovered Jennifer Egan early in her career with “The Invisible Circus” and “The Emerald City”.  From these early works, I knew that Jennifer Egan was a formidable talent, and I’ve followed her career closely. A recent review at The Mookse and The Gripes reaffirms this view. 

Dealing with the rock and roll business, ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’ is a wild and woolly book.  I give Jennifer Egan a lot of credit for keeping her writing cool while dealing with these wayward rock and roll people.  The rock and roll era she deals with was a quite decadent era in the late Seventies and early Eighties, and her characters fully take part.  The book is not only about the musicians but also about the producers, the PR people, and the families. 

The book starts with two quotes from Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time”, one of which I think captures what Jennifer Egan is getting at in this novel.

    “The unknown element in the lives of other people is like that of nature, which each fresh scientific discovery merely reduces but does not abolish.” – Marcel Proust

It is this unknown element in people that is not reducible to science that “A Visit from the Goon Squad” is about.  This unknown element gives these stories their mystery.  Although I have no musical talent, rock and roll interests me, and I really enjoyed these devastating stories.  While contemplating a quote from the novel itself, I considered several, a couple of which were quite risqué, but finally settled on the following atypical off-hand comment on language and the Internet.

    “Her new book was on the phenomenon of word casings, a term she’d invented for words that no longer had meaning outside quotation marks. English was full of these empty words – ‘Friend’ and ‘real’ and ‘story’ and ‘change’ – words that had been shucked of their meanings and reduced to husks. Some like ‘identity’, ‘search’, and ‘cloud’ had clearly been drained of life by their Web usage. With others, the reasons were more complex; how had ‘American’ become an ironic term? How had ‘democracy’ come to be used in an arch mocking way?”

A few weeks ago, I was wondering what ever would I do for a Top Ten reading list this year.  Now my concerns are how will I fit all these books in and how can I possibly rate one of these books over the others.    

In my review of ‘”Ether”, I described those stories as edgy.  I would characterize the stories in “A Visit from the Goon Squad” as spiky.  Don’t ask me what the difference between edgy and spiky is.

14 responses to this post.

  1. I’m glad to see others finding this book as satisfying as I did. I’ve read ten books or so since I finished this and I am still thinking about it all the time.

    By the way, I haven’t looked at Egan’s other works. Is there a good place to start?

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  2. Hi Trevor,
    As far as other books by Jennifer Egan, ‘Emerald City’ is a book of stories and ‘The Invisible Circus’ is a novel, and both are excellent. I remember being a little disappointed with ‘Look At Me’, and I haven’t read ‘The Keep’. For me, ‘A Visit to the Goon Squad’ is a return to form for her. I certainly plan to keep following her career.

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  3. Hi Tony: This is a comment of thanks for your continuing reviews on American short story collections. It is a genre which produces some excellent writiers — and for those of us who are not wandering around book stores in the U.S., many of them are hard to locate. I will forever be indebted to you for introducing me to Maile Meloy, a great writer, and this review — coupled with Trevor’s equally positive assessment — means that I will be trying Egan.

    I’ll do my best to try to keep you up to date with Canadian short story writers (and we have a lot as well). Rachman (his citizenship is Canadian, but you are right, his heritage is global) is also my favorite “read” of the year.

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  4. Hi Kevin,
    I imagine Maile Meloy and Jennifer Egan are rather duking it out now for that top position. Both write great stories as well as novels They are in similar positions in their career with a couple of novels and a couple of short story collections under their belts.
    As for Tom Rachman, when I look at his biography, to me it spells Canadian him being raised in Vancouver and graduating from the University of Toronto, so you can definitely take credit there.

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  5. I am not up on modern American short stories but have just received the collected stories of Lydia Davies which looks like a good one. Jennifer Eagan is a new name to me but one that sounds as though its worth following. I like the Proust quotation

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  6. Hi Tom,
    I know many prefer the novel form, but I like both forms maybe even preferring the short story in some instances. I especially like to try out new writers with short stories, because if they can’t write a coherent short story, how could they possibly write a coherent novel? I’ve heard good things about the Lydia Davis book also.

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  7. I’ve been intrigued by this book, mostly because of all the phrase, not to mention the form — but I’ve been iffy about picking it up because of the whole musical element. I am not very musical. Nope. But I just might give this a try, if I spot it in the bookstores here in my country. Thanks for helping me decide!

    And if I may contribute to the discussion on American short stories? I feel bad that so many seem to have such distaste for short fiction. I understand their arguments, but I can be deaf to them when it comes to a form I love. :] So I take the passive-aggressive route: Review collections, without making it seem like I am staunchly defending them, haha.

    I have Lydia Davis’ Collected Stories, and I like her enough. It has its flaws, but when a story works, it works. I always recommend Lorrie Moore, especially her first collection, Self-Help. For the “oldies”: Raymond Carver is always a go-to, as is Richard Yates [who writes so well in both short fiction and the novel]. I’ve just received Maile Meloy’s Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It, and I have to admit I wanted to read that from the start because of the title. :]

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  8. Hi Sasha,
    Yes, my two favorite recent titles as titles are ‘The Imperfectionists’ and ‘Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It’., which both happen to be excellent books. Who could not read a book with a title like that? And you are right about Richard Yates’ short fiction also. As I recall he had two great titles too for his collections also with ‘Eleven Kinds of Loneliness’ and ‘Liars in Love’. Of course there is always Alice Munro, and I like Jean Thompson a lot. One writer who was always strong in the short form was Alice Adams who died about 12 years ago.
    Thanks for stopping by and leaving the interesting comment !

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    • Those Yates collections are just so simple but awe-inspring to me. Yes, there is always Alice Munro — oh, and for another Canadian, Carol Shields. Her novel The Stone Diaries won the Pulitzer, and I liked that book, but her short stories are little gems.

      Oh, I forgot: For younger writers, there’s Miranda July [No One Belongs Here More Than You] and Simon Van Booy [The Secret Lives of People in Love] and David Vann [Legend of a Suicide].

      I haven’t read — or even heard of — Jean Thompson and Alice Adams, but I’m going to check them out.

      Oh, and you’re welcome, and thank you too: I’ve been lurking for quite some time now; I don’t know why it took me this long to comment. :] Thanks for the recs!

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  9. Hi Sasha,
    I have not read those three young writers you mention, Miranda July, Simon Van Booy, and David Vann. It’s difficult to determine which young writers are worth reading, and which not, so it’s good to hear what others think. I have read Carol Shields, and she was very good.

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  10. […] “Although I have no musical talent, rock and roll interests me, and I really enjoyed these devastating stories.” Tony’s Book World […]

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  11. Posted by Jean Jolin on July 1, 2011 at 4:36 PM

    A very bizarre and gripping read about colorful and somewhat tragic characters in the music industry that are weakly linked in time. However, a frustrating read for those looking for reasons, answers, or endings. I am left feeling that I have been teased but not really satisfied.

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  12. Hi Jean,
    I tried to post a comment in reply to yours quite a while ago, but somehow it disappeared. I can understand your frustration with ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’. While I did like the book, it only finished in about sixth place on my year-end list. The stories don’t lead to a conclusion, rather are more slices of life. Some would probably argue that it was probably better to not tidy up the stories too much.

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