Before re-reading: I first read A Visit From The Goon Squad in June 2011, when I was 24, and can only remember two things about it now. One: that it’s told with a crazy variety of styles and narrators, including a chapter composed of Powerpoint slides. Two: that near the end of the novel a man is looking out at the skyscraper that is gradually being erected next to his own building and anticipating how his beautiful view will be slowly blocked out as each storey is added.
A Visit From The Goon Squad is essentially about the arbitariness of time – how things can be so different when only time separates Point A and Point B – so it feels like an especially suitable book to look back on. When I first reviewed A Visit From The Goon Squad, I wrote that it ‘follows the stories of various characters who are loosely linked to each other over a fifty-year period in the USA…a fantastic read’.
BUT: in my personal reading log I rated it four and a half stars for quality but only four stars for enjoyment, which is a pretty big tell, and my only physical memory of reading this book is getting to the Powerpoint chapter on a train from London to Cambridge, where I was living at the time, and feeling relieved that this meant the rest of the book would go by much more quickly than I had anticipated.
So, after re-reading, perhaps it shouldn’t have been so much of a surprise that I no longer get along well with this book at all. The Powerpoint chapter, which focuses on the power of pauses in rock songs through the eyes of a twelve-year-old girl, is still genius. Alison’s brother is obsessed with measuring pauses in rock songs and playing them on loop, so he listens to what is essentially a series of silences that are weightier than if they really were just silence. Their dad, who comes and goes a lot from his important job, doesn’t understand his son’s obsession with pauses, and eventually gets frustrated that he won’t stop going on about them and tells him to stop. At that point, their mum snaps:
Honestly, I’m going to keep my copy of this book just so I can read this chapter again, but part of the problem here is that Egan manages to say everything she wanted to say in the rest of the book about why time matters, and hence renders the rest of her novel redundant, which is pretty satisfying on a meta level but not great for her or her readers. This time round, I found the many earlier chapters that focus on the dissipated lives of a group of people working in the music business an irritating slog.
(Oh, and in case anyone was wondering, the book DOES end with a skyscraper being built, which is another nice vignette, returning to the theme of incremental intervals of time leading to an absolute difference:
When he stood close to the middle window and looked straight up, he could see the top of the Empire State Building, lit tonight in red and gold… the squat building their own overlooked had been bought by a developer who planned to raze it and build a skyscraper that would seal off their air and light… And now, two years later, the skyscraper had at last begun to rise, a fact that filled Alex with dread and doom but also a vertiginous sweetness – every instant of warm sunlight through their three east-facing windows felt delicious…
The construction now covered the bottom halves of his windows, its shafts and beams a craggy silhouette beyond which the prong of the Empire State Building was still just visible. In a few days, it would be gone.)
Rating in 2011: ****
Rating in 2020: ***
I re-read A Visit From The Goon Squad as part of a buddy read with Bookish Beck.