Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan


"Time's a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?"

It's hard to know where to begin writing about this book, so I'll start by thanking my book club for pushing me to read a title I would not have chosen on my own. Since its release nearly two years ago, I've avoided A Visit From the Goon Squad, the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Jennifer Egan. An edgy "novel of interconnected lives at the fringes of the music industry" simply didn't appeal to me, especially one which features a chapter in PowerPoint. In the end though, I was nudged out of my comfort zone and quite enjoyed the experience.

A Visit From the Goon Squad is a novel about the passage and effects of time. It's about aging, growing, and surviving. The characters are interesting, although not overly likable, and their stories intertwine through various connections to the music industry. On initial presentation, they appear in one dimension and seem a little flat. The beauty of the novel begins when the characters reappear in another time or setting. We see another aspect of their personality, observe how they've grown or changed, and begin to understand how multifaceted they really are.

My planned approach was to listen in the car and read at home, but it ended up being primarily an audio experience.  I cannot stress strongly enough that this is NOT a good choice for a novice listener. The non-linear plot shifts abruptly and without much warning from present, to past, and even to the future. There are point of view shifts, too. Most chapters are told from a third person perspective. I found the sudden switch to second person narration disconcerting, but strangely effective. It took some work to follow this one.

About the PowerPoint chapter: I was driving, so ended up listening to it first. Typing (and maybe clicking) can be heard in the background, and a character is asked why she doesn't just write instead of make slides.... pretty strong clues for a PowerPoint presentation. The main ideas came across clearly and I was prepared to report that this worked just fine on audio. Later that evening, I read the chapter and was amazed by its impact. The ability to see the arrangement of shapes, arrows, graphs, etc., made the print version much more powerful and effective. But, even though the printed version conveys more, I still feel the audio was adequate. In the end, I decided it was like listening to a nonfiction title without access to charts, maps, and photos. You're fine without them, but if you take the time to hunt down a print copy, the rewards are great.

My book club's reaction was mixed. Due to scheduling confusion, only five members were present. We were all impressed with the creativity and originality of the novel. Two of us liked it, two were neutral, and one did not finish. One member that could not attend sent an email expressing her strong dislike. Those of us who enjoyed the novel still felt it was not one we could easily recommend.

About the audio production: Roxana Ortega, a new narrator for me, did an excellent job of adjustinging her voice and tone as characters wandered in and out of chapters. Her delivery style ranged from warm and engaging, to cool, detached and almost clinical. I did not see other credits listed at audible.com, but would happily listen to more of her work. You can sample the production here.

My rating:



FTC disclosure:
audiobook purchased from audible.com, print copy borrowed from library

A Visit From the Goon Squad
by Jennifer Egan
Narrated by Roxana Ortega
AudioGO, 2010
10 hours and 8 minutes

38 comments:

  1. I'm glad you got to this one! It was on my best of list for last year. You are totally right that this should not be the first audio that you listen to. You have to have "flexible ears"! Ha! But I found it a completely fulfilling experience, even the PowerPoint. This is the beauty of book clubs, no? (I say this while ranting and raving that they are making me read Fifty Shades of Grey.)

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    1. Sandy - It's been a while since my book club has challenged me, but I'm so glad I listened to this book... actually thinking I should have rated it higher. Hmm, Fifty Shades of Grey? Good luck.

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  2. I liked parts of it, but really HATED the Power Point chapter...lol

    I've enjoyed other books by Egan, and my favorite is The Invisible Circus, followed by Look at Me.

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    1. Laurel-Rain Snow - I was so intrigued and impressed with the creativity of the PowerPoint chapter that I never stopped to wonder if I actually liked it! Definitely wouldn't want a chapter in every book I read. Thanks for the additional suggestions. I keep picking up Look at Me in the bookstore... may just end up buying it.

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  3. It sounds like one of those books you really hate or really like. It doesn't sound like it would appeal to me! LOL!

    Thanks for reviewing. I love to read what my blogging friends are reading.

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    1. Brenda - The funny part is that I didn't think it would work me at all, then I ended up really liking it. Such a surprise!

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  4. I really liked this one, but imagine it would be a tough go on audio. I think Egan is an amazing writer, and everything she does is so different. Kind of like David Mitchell.

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    1. Amy - I've been avoiding David Mitchell, too. Maybe it's time to read him? I may be on a roll...

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    2. Indeed! And with David Mitchell, if you don't like the first book you read, don't give up--he's got an astonishing versatility.

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    3. Amy - Is there one you'd recommend? Cloud Atlas seems especially scary...

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    4. Try Black Swan Green. A much more conventional structure than Cloud Atlas. And if you like that, try the Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. It's a little slow going at first, but hang in there, it gets better.

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    5. Amy - More conventional is good... adding to my list. Thanks.

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  5. Because of the mixed reviews on this one I haven't really been drawn to it but your review has me very curious and you do a great job of explaining the ups and downs. Sounds like this is not one that would be good for me on audio. So with such diverse feelings about the book, did you guys have a good discussion? Sometimes I find that polarized opinions can be good--but other times not so much.

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    1. Trish - If you decide to read it, definitely go for print. I loved the narrator, but had to work at it. Think it would have been easier to follow in print. Our discussion was lackluster, at best. Might have been better if the member that hated it was there...

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  6. Souds like one I should definitely with the print version of. And truly print, not even an e-book.

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    1. Carol - I didn't even think of the e-book aspect, but you're right. Go for real print!

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  7. It seems like people like this one or hate it. I've avoided it just because it's way outside of my comfort zone but your review makes me think I will like it so I should stop being afraid!

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    1. Kathleen - Let's just say I was pleasantly surprised...

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  8. I remember reading the PowerPoint chapter online (can't remember where it was posted, I think in a contest to create your own story in PP) and liked it very much. Definitely something new. And I loved the writing!

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    1. Ivana - Egan certainly doesn't lack creativity! I've never read anything like that before.

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  9. I've got a feeling that this one just wouldn't work for me audio or book form. But then again you never know!

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    1. Staci - If you decide to tackle this one, I'm sure you'd get more out of reading in print.

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  10. I have the audio on my iPod, but just haven't gotten to it, Glad u enjoyed it.

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    1. Diane - I really did like the audio... and you've been listening for long enough that I'm sure you won't have a problem following it either.

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  11. I have this on my shelf and keep hearing (mostly) good things about it. I heard a podcast where Jennifer Egan read the part about the dictator and thought it was very funny and since then, I've wanted to read it. Can't wait to get to that notorious power point chapter!

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    1. Christina - Will be curious to hear what you think of this... loved her handling of the dictator segment!

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  12. That PowerPoint chapter on audio was okay for me... but much more powerful in print. I agree.

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    1. Ti - I think you really need to see the PowerPoint chapter to get the full effect, but it still worked on audio.

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  13. I've never got round to even looking for this book. Time I read it I think (after reading your post). Thanks.

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    1. Mystica - Hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

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  14. I tried to get my book club to read this one but one lady had already read it, didn't like it at all, and scared every one else off. I'd already picked it up and now I'm excited again to pull it off of the shelves. Thanks for the incentive!

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    1. Lisa - Glad to give you a little incentive! I really liked this book a lot and wish I hadn't avoided it for so long. The other members of your book club are missing out on a good read.

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  15. I think that's a good description of how the PowerPoint chapter worked. I thought I got it fine having listened, but it probably WOULD be good to go back and take a look.

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    1. Jen - Even if it's been a while since you listened, it would still be interesting to take a look at the powerpoint chapter next time you're in a library or book store. The impact is really much stronger.

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  16. This was definitely a tough one for me to like on audio - because of the many different characters, I felt like I needed the print version so I could look back on things. And I didn't like the Powerpoint chapter - the content just felt out of place to me.

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    1. Tanya - Although I really liked the audio experience of Goonn Squad, I'd recommend that most people read it. I've never seen anything like that powerpoint chapter in a book before!

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  17. My book club read this one when it first came out in paperback. We all loved it. It was fun that is was both a solid, moving story and sort of a puzzle, too. We had a great discussion.

    It ended up on my ten best reads of the year list.

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    1. James - Goon Squad may end up being my biggest surprise of the year. I never expected to enjoy it as much as I did! My book club's discussion was shorter and less involved than usual though... I was disappointed.

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