Should You Read A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan?

“It began the usual way, in the bathroom of the Lassimo Hotel. Sasha was adjusting her yellow eye shadow in the mirror when she noticed a bag on the floor beside the sink that must have belonged to the woman whose peeing she could faintly hear through the vaultlike door of a toilet stall. Inside the rim of the bag, barely visible, was a wallet made of pale green leather. It was easy for Sasha to recognize, looking back, that the peeing woman’s blind trust had provoked her…”

– Opening of A Visit from the Goon Squad

A Visit from the Goon Squad does not seem like a novel so much as a collection of loosely related narratives. The first chapter depicts a woman named Sasha struggling with kleptomania during a date. The second dips into the life of Sasha’s boss, who was previously only briefly mentioned in a story Sasha told her date. So it goes, each new chapter including characters the reader will recognize, but often only barely. It skips back and forth in time, as well as skipping around various points of view and storytelling structures. There are chapters in first person, second person, third person limited, and third person omniscient. There’s a chapter in the form of a magazine article and a chapter in the form of a slideshow presentation. It all feels very experimental, certainly not a conventional narrative.

The only unifying factors, for me, were the writing style and the tone. The prose itself was excellent. It read smoothly all throughout and somehow kept me engaged even when I didn’t understand why I should want to continue reading. There were sentences that stuck out to me as being particularly insightful about the characters and perhaps the human condition, more broadly.

But the tone was not the sort I personally enjoy. This is a book that seems to take a rather dark view of humanity and the world in general. It lacks a sense of hope. There were few characters I liked, and I ended up mostly feeling sorry for them or feeling disgusted by them. The whole thing was a downer.

It certainly deserves a slew of content warnings also, for everything from homophobic language to sexual violence, probably including a lot of things that I forgot because there was just so much that seemed wrong everywhere. I can practically guarantee you won’t enjoy this book if you have no interest in getting to know characters who make some awful mistakes at best and do some awful things at worst. These characters are broken, self-destructive, harming others intentionally or unintentionally.

But there are people who like this book, even love it. I went to read some reviews after I was finished, curious what other people saw in it. There does seem to be something in it that resonates deeply with a certain set of people. Maybe they have things in common with one or more of the characters. Maybe they just share the worldview that the book espouses. Perhaps some are simply impressed by the prose and the experimental style. This wasn’t a book for me, but I won’t deny it could be just the thing for you.

As for myself, I’m going to be reading The Candy House by the same author as part of a book club soon. Based on the description, it seems to be loosely related to this novel in the same way the chapters of this one are loosely related to each other. Except, perhaps, that The Candy House might lean more into the science fiction elements that began to show in the final few chapters of this one. I can only hope that I’ll enjoy it a bit more as a result. I’ll post a review next week to let you know.

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