A Visit From the Goon Squad

Finals ended this week, which means I finally got to sit down, read a little and write a quick column. Hopefully next semester won't be as tough as this last one and I'll be back to my regular schedule.

I'm a little intimidated by Pulitzer Prizewinning books, although I periodically try to read a selected few, sometimes enjoying them and sometimes treating them like the Brussels sprouts of reading - I need to get through them so I can get to the stuff I really like. I had heard good things about Jennifer Egan's A Visit From the Goon Squad but when it won the Pulitzer I wasn't sure if it was going to be a fun read. And fun was what I wanted, after a grueling semester and a six week bout of the flu.

A Visit From the Goon Squad is ostensibly about time, or more accurately the ravages of time, and spans a period from the punk rock 80's to some time in the future when lawns no longer exist. I would say it's more about relationships - all kinds, not just romantic relationships - and the mistakes we make, or the situations we get into that we don't know how to handle.

The book is not a traditional novel, instead it features a series of braided stories with recurring characters. In the opening story we meet Sasha, who works in the music industry, is a kleptomaniac and is kind of working on her issues. She works for Bennie, who is the lead in the next story and a peripheral character in the third.

While I enjoyed the first two stories it was the third that really connected with me. Set in San Francisco in the punk rock world of the 80's it's told from the perspective of a confused, lovesick teen girl. She and her friends, some of whom are in a band, are seeing the same bands and visiting the same clubs that I went to when I was that age, in that same scene, at that time. They're asking the same questions, dreaming the same dreams and making the same mistakes that many of us did, or do, which makes it extra easy to identify with them.

My favorite stories are all told by teens, which my favorite presented in an unusual format; a series of slides. The young lady telling this tale is telling it from our future, a not very distant future, and her concerns are timely for us. She loves her dad and her brother very much, fights with her mother, tries to show her brother and father how to be better communicators and generally spends a lot of energy on relationship dynamics. She's feeling her way through different roles, trying them on for size. She's also the only one the book who isn't sort of awestruck/half in love with her mother, which makes the whole chapter/story that much funnier/endearing.

Another chapter I particularly enjoyed is also set in the future, when very young children, called pointers, rule ecommerce, setting trends in music and everything else. A young man is asked to hire friends to be parrots; people paid to advocate a particular product without anyone knowing they're spokespeople. This is an action that is highly unethical in the time of the story and is summed up by the catchphrase "Someone's getting paid." If you followed the debacle recently when the story broke that the woman behind the twitter hash tag fridayreads is getting paid to promote books, this catchphrase will definitely resonate. (If you're unfamiliar with this story or want to learn more about it you may wish to read Jennifer Weiner's insightful take: http://jenniferweiner.blogspot.com/2011/11/by-now-people-who-follow-publ....)

There is a story/chapter about a photo safari to Africa that involves lust, desperation and a lion attack. It's an evocative story that left me feeling as though I'd actually seen the whole thing, with visions of dusty sunsets, sunburnt tourists and weary guides.

Another story that was quite visual is about a woman who was the best at her job and now has fallen out of favor and is clinging to her former lifestyle by a thread. She's barely supporting herself by being the PR manager for a genocidal general. This was an amazing story and worth the price of the book all by itself. It made me cringe and laugh by turns. It's an excellent and piercing look at the extreme weirdness of the human psyche.

Ms. Egan's characters are fantastic. I love how very human they are. They are sweet and sour, adorable and genocidal, innocent and devious. They know the score while simultaneously having absolutely no idea what's going on around them or how to deal with it.

The whole book was like a nice, refreshing drink on the hottest day of the summer. I'm going to have to hunt down her other work.

You can read an excerpt here: http://www.randomhouse.com/book/201020/a-visit-from-the-goon-squad-by-je...

Bonus Treat:
This week's bonus treat is from Mike Dawson. It's a comic called Prospect Park Dusk Prospect Park Dawn. It's about a mother who is going to tremendous lengths to juggle her job, her family and her daycare. That's nothing special, there are billions of us doing the same thing, but she has a certain handicap that makes it all that much harder. She's hiding a secret, which you may be able to guess from the title of the comic. But don't let that stop you from reading it as there's much here to savor.