The results are in, and if everyone is to be believed, A Visit From The Goon Squad is one of the finest novels of the 21st century. As someone who generally sticks to other, better literary centuries in order to satisfy his reading needs, I’m not particularly qualified to comment on that point. Perhaps it is. However, the clever narrative concept Jennifer Egan utilizes does not disguise the fact that the stories she unfolds are largely unremarkable, and told in an extremely familiar manner.
That being said, there’s plenty to like. Egan should be praised for drawing together a satisfying whole from so many disparate tales; characters come and go with a frequency that is almost difficult to keep up with, and there is a certain amount of risk inherent in essentially dispensing with an individual the reader is starting to root for, which suggests that the author is willing to embrace a challenge. She clearly cares about her characters and their fates, and a strong sense of humanism pervades the entirety of the novel.
The penultimate chapter is perhaps the most laudable; dedicating 70-odd pages of narrative to a PowerPoint presentation is, on the face of things, a particularly gimmicky device, yet it is an unqualified success, partly because the subject matter from which the subtext is derived – pauses in rock songs – is interesting, and partly because Egan absolutely nails the execution.
However, that goodwill is flushed away with an excruciating sci-fi-esque final chapter that posits a future in which human beings have devolved into button pushing, technology-obsessed bores. I’m not arguing the validity of such a vision, simply the mind-numbing mundanity of it in a literary context. The underlying theme – that technology is increasingly altering, and imposing itself upon, the way we communicate – is handled about as subtly as a sledgehammer to the face.
Still, the disappointing denouement is not enough to derail the novel altogether. Other commentators have thrown around comparisons to Proust (sure) and The Sopranos (tenuous, but I can see it). I’d suggest that Egan shares more in common with Raymond Carver, whose stock-and-trade was low key pieces detailing almost imperceptible moments where, for two individuals, the world’s very axis shifted. A Visit From The Goon Squad operates in much the same way. It’s never less than enjoyable, but it only rarely touches greatness.