Why A Visit From the Goon Squad is EW's Best Book of the Decade
Leah Greenblatt, critic at large: Philandering fathers, washed-up rock stars, bipolar celebrity profilers, slumming rich kids, and kleptomaniacs: There's a sliding scale of human frailties in Goon Squad (one character is actually being paid to whitewash a murderous dictator's reputation, but who's keeping score?). Jennifer Egan's 2010 masterwork — it won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award — remains a sui generis achievement, even almost a decade after its release; if her playfully postmodern catalog of delinquents, kooks, and schemers seemed at first merely eccentric for its own sake, the telling of it proved otherwise: a book as rich and resonant as any linear classic in the canon.
David Canfield, books editor: Shortly after Goon Squad won the Pulitzer Prize, HBO announced that it'd acquired the novel for screen development. A show, of course, never materialized, and I felt weirdly relieved by this, my special relationship to the book kept pure and preserved, as if left untouched in a glass bottle. From the first time I opened Goon Squad, I fell so deeply into it I couldn't find my way out. I couldn't stop thinking about it. I couldn't stop talking about it. I hadn't read anything like it — a wild, utterly postmodern work that careened its way through 13 interlinked stories, blasting from the past to the future, hunting for parrots and aging rock stars, equally devoted to punk and PowerPoint, before ending on a note of resounding, dizzying humanity. It's tender and grim and shocking and kind. I'll never forget what it felt like to close that book; I haven't experienced that feeling since.
Clark Collis, senior writer: The titular squad of Jennifer Egan's novel-cum-collection-of-interlinked short stories is in the employ of time. Again and again, the book's chapters, which hop back and forth across recent decades and even into the future, depict the cruel ravages of the passing years and its protagonists' attempts to survive and fight back against them. As Egan's pivotal character, record company executive Bennie Salazar says toward the end of the book, "Time's a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?"
A Visit From the Goon Squad was one of the 2010s' hippest of reads. Given that fact, plus its exotic architecture and music biz milieu, the temptation might be not to revisit Egan's Pulitzer Prize-winning work of fiction, for fear the book might itself have been scarred by time's merciless thugs. In fact, rereading the novel and decade on, its tales seem as fresh and funny, if also as tragic, as they did on publication. Age has yet to wither the delight to be derived from Egan's sharply-drawn cast of characters from kleptomaniac corporate assistant to dictator-assisting publicist to that most unlikely of characters, an unhinged magazine writer.
Darren Franich, TV critic: I think about Goon Squad five times a day on average, including some days when the actual world reveals itself as the unwritten fourteenth chapter of Goon Squad. The scope of Egan's vision is astoundingly personal even as the stories rove global: awkward Manhattan hook-ups, luxury safari getaways, suburban cuckoldry, desert kids, dictators, music producers. It's a generational story, witnessing multiple fallrises from late San Francisco counterculture through '80s punk into '90s ennui and post-9/11 uncertainty — and I think you have to credit Egan as a great science-fiction thinker, too, for the dexterous cleverness of the futuristic later narratives, all consumerist toddlers and hysterical social media fame. Comedy and tragedy blend together seamlessly: At long last, a band called "The Flaming Dildos" has a place in the annals of great literature.
Maria Speidel, reporter: Even for one who lived through it, the norms of '70s teen life — the casual levels of parental supervision which today would be considered criminal, compulsory drinking and lots of drugs — can seem like a crazy, made-up dream. In Chapter Three, Egan captures that time perfectly as a group of high schoolers in a band called the Flaming Dildos — it includes many of the book's reoccurring characters — bump around 1979 San Francisco in a pick-up truck, smoking cigarettes, chewing cherry gum, and drinking their dad's gin out of coke cans they can carry on the street. I read Good Squad in book club full of similarly aged women whose opinions were summed up by a friend who said, "I am not sure what this is about, but I love it."
Mary Sollosi, assistant digital features editor: When Goon Squad came out, much was made of the PowerPoint chapter. I, a pretentious Victorian Lit major at the time, decided that sounded gimmicky and would not read it. How glad I am that I eventually got over that and finally deigned to pick up this miraculous postmodern puzzle of a novel, brimming with humanity, that seems to exist in four dimensions. My first read of it remains the only time in my whole life that a PowerPoint presentation has reduced me to tears; I only wish I could tell my college self that I'd love it as much as anything from my revered Victorian masters, or that Egan's Pulitzer Prize winner is removed from those classics not at all in measures of originality or depth, but only, what, a century and a half? And time, after all, is just a goon.
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