Jennifer Egan's "A Visit from the Goon Squad"

Jennifer Egan A Visit from the Goon Squad.jpg

Egan’s writing in A Visit from the Goon Squad is powerful, which should come as no surprise given it earned her the Pulitzer Prize. The story and its delivery kept me turning the pages. But when I finished the last page, I felt unsatisfied. 

I did care about the characters, well a couple of them, just as the Chicago Tribune’s blurb on the book’s back cover suggested that a reader would. They were a mess, all of them, but Egan’s writing helped connect their mess to the universal mess somewhere inside all of us: inadequacy, loneliness, heartbreak, bad habits, rejection, failure. Read it and understand more about the pain your neighbor may be carrying, or the people on the bus on your way to work, or you yourself. I heard Steven Pinker speak last fall, and he made the claim that there is less violence in our culture today (hard to believe yes, but he showed statistics in support of this statement) in part because fiction has given us a greater capacity to empathize. This book could be one that does that. The chapters go backwards in time, time being the “goon squad” in the title, then forward and sideways before back again. The threads of pain and human connection weave back and forth, in turn, in a believable and nearly instructive way. Here at timepoint A is what explains timepoint X, and why so and so is the way she is and you really do care and want to know. On the other hand, at multiple points in the book, I had the strong urge to say to one or more of the characters in a very parental no-nonsense tone, Stop making so many bad choices!

The book’s own blurb on the back cover promised redemption. That promise didn’t deliver, in my opinion, unless the redemption is of the passive variety--we all grow up; time heals all wounds; things work out in the end--as if Julian of Norwich’s famous assertion that “all shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well” could just as easily been written by a greeting card employee as by a woman immersed in the life of faith in God. Time seemed to be the only force affecting change in Egan’s characters. I prefer redemption of the active variety, not the passive progressionist variety. To claim the existence of redemption in a story should require at the very least the existence and action of one or more of the typical vehicles of redemption, namely heroism and sacrifice, love and grace.