“Ending as often in disappointment as in success”

This is my review of A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.

This is likely to divide opinion sharply since it rejects the convention of a clear plot, and flits back and forth in time with a variety of viewpoints and sheer number of characters which may prove confusing.

It is a series of short stories rather than a novel, focusing in turn on different members of an amorphous group who have in common only some kind of link to the music industry – they know, or know someone who knows, either Bennie the driven music manager, or Sasha, his light-fingered assistant whose kleptomania may have some deeper emotional cause.

I enjoyed the quirky incidents and offbeat humour of the first seven chapters, and the game of anticipating which character mentioned in passing would turn up as a key player in the next episode. I liked the way the author always managed to overcome my irritation at being dragged away from one group of characters, by skilfully hooking me in to the next one, only to be disappointed again at having to leave the new story with strands left unresolved, perhaps forever.

Some of the relationships are genuinely moving, such as the hard-bitten, selfish, corrupt Lou's love for his sweet, gentle son, whom he cannot help inadvertently damaging, just through being the bastard that he is. I was impressed by the study of Scotty, mentally ill but managing after a fashion, who convinces himself half the time that being a failure is as good as being a success.

My good opinion suffered a blow in Chapter 8, an over-farcical account of a disgraced PR manager trying to make ends meet by advising a genocidal dictator of some unnamed country, which was an annoyingly unconvincing mixture of Arab desert too close to lush African jungle. The there are two sections I grew too bored to read properly: an intentionally bad , I think, parody of a journalist's interview with a movie star, followed by an attempt to relate to an autistic boy, and to show his thought processes, through a PowerPoint presentation – a novel idea, but it goes on for 74 pages – has the author not heard of death by OHP? After that, the return of the final chapters to some of the original characters lacks the power to engage me, in a work which seems to have lost its way – perhaps because the subjects are essentially rather uninteresting and underdeveloped players in an artificial and shallow world.

On one hand, this book is unusual, often creative and original, with what you might call brave experiments (but shouldn't the author be clear-eyed enough to see where they may have fallen short?), yet there is too much that is contrived, gimmicky or glib for me to rate this as an indisputably worthy Pulitzer winner.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

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