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Monday, May 2, 2011

A Visit From the Goon Squad

I finished reading this year’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel last Tuesday and have not gotten around to reviewing it until now. This is not due to any difficulty finding enough time to give the novel the time it deserves. Rather, I just didn’t feel like wasting any more time on the book. But something, a sense of duty I suppose, compels me.

Jennifer Egan’s “novel” (it is really more a collection of short stories with some recurring characters to give the thing shape) paints pictures of life among music fanatics from the punk scene of late ‘70s San Francisco to the near future, where she fails to resist the temptation to sneer at modern technology and where it’s heading.

(Sidenote: On the long list of things that irk me, a high place is reserved for novelists who speculate on the future and do so exclusively through the prism of how technology might affect their livelihood. Yes please, don’t apply your supposedly superior insight to economics or geopolitics, but do tell us if anyone will still be reading Austen. The whole tone of such writing is inherently condescending and self-serving, which would perhaps be forgivable. It is also insurmountably boring, which is a mortal sin in fiction.)

The problem with the interconnected story structure is that it becomes difficult to sustain any interest in the characters when they flit in and out of the story, such as it is, for no other reason than authorial discretion. Egan compounds this problem by not creating strong characters, but rather using her characters as vehicles for events. Her characters aren’t people, they’re automatons who will commit adultery, petty crime, or suicide at her beck and call. It may sound like the same could be said of all fictional characters, but there is definitely a lack of refinement to the manner in which Egan handles her creations.

The book is getting a lot of positive press for its supposed inventiveness and genre-bending, the best example of which is presumably the ballyhooed Power Point chapter near the end, which kicks off the futuristic section of the narrative. I must say, as far as inventiveness is concerned, the principal innovation here seems to be a way to pad your final page count to acceptable novel conventions. Seriously, the 80 pages of Power Point (which, by the way, you have to hold your book like a flip book in order to read, and is apparently a disaster on the Kindle) read more like 15 pages of text.

By winning the Pulitzer Prize, A Visit From the Goon Squad seems to have proven the idea that the worst decisions are made by committee.

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