Laura Rereading: A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

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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:

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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.

12 thoughts on “Laura Rereading: A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

  1. We’re on the same page with this one! It did not stand up well to a reread. I just finished it this morning, though I did skim most of the last six chapters. My 4* dropped to a 2.5* this time. Techniques that I found fresh in 2011 felt gimmicky now (apart from the Powerpoint presentation, which is still amazing — I agree I’ll keep the book just for that), and I didn’t connect with any of the characters. I doubt I’ll bother with Egan’s planned sequel. What about you?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, the only mystery for me is why I rated it so highly last time! I guess maybe some of this felt genuinely fresher in 2011 (the contrast between how Beautiful Ruins handles its washed-up Hollywood characters and how Goon Squad handles its washed-up musicians is stark, but of course I originally read this two years before Beautiful Ruins). I’ve read a couple other books by Egan which I also enjoyed at the time but wouldn’t be keen to return to now.

      I’ll read the sequel if it’s 300 pages of Powerpoint presentation! 🙂

      Like

  2. Are you doing a lot of rereading of books you own? I’ve been thinking about re-reading the books I own and have kept from before starting Grab the Lapels in 2013. My goal is to get through the pile of books I own and haven’t read so I can move on to the next project. I never read A Visit from the Good Squad, but I viscerally recall how popular it was, how ubiquitous.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I own a copy – but (typically for me) have yet to read it for the first time, so I’ll probably enjoy it if/when I get around to it. Re-reading can be a knife-edge thing can’t it. Luckily my recent Auster re-reads have enhanced my reading of those books.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Adventures in Rereading: Julian Barnes and Jennifer Egan – Bookish Beck

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