Visit from the Goon Squad Undeserving of a Pulitzer

Diverting, but nothing more.

Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad, 2010. ISBN 978-0-307-94835-9

There are certain awards--film’s Palme d’Or springs to mind--that have more to do with how much one has impressed peers than how good the product is. I’m beginning to think that the Pulitzer Prize for fiction is one of them. I haven’t agreed with the committee’s choice since Richard Russo won in 2002 for Empire Falls, but the 2011 choice, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, leaves me especially perplexed. It is, at best, a middling effort that hardly deserves to join exalted ranks such as To Kill a Mockingbird or The Confessions of Nat Turner. It’s not a bad book, just one I could see a group of aging committee members honoring in the mistaken belief that they are being “hip” and “relevant.” It must be “now,” right? There are PowerPoint slides in the book and some of the characters text and tweet. Wow!

Egan takes us inside the chaos of the 1970s, a time in which punk rock was in the process of transitioning from an expression of underclass anger into a commercial commodity. In fact, one of the book’s two main characters, Bennie Salazar, is helping make that happen. He’s a failed musician-turned-record executive seeking to bask in the star glow of his discoveries. The other central figure is the enigmatic Sasha, his kleptomaniac assistant, who is either a free spirit, a true punk bad girl, or just seriously screwed up. Their various friends, acquaintances, lovers, drug dealers, and hangers-on populate the rest of the book. Kudos to Egan for probing a topic few have previously explored: what happens to punk rockers when they hit middle age, parenthood, and artistic irrelevancy? Bennie’s case is dramatic; his very raison d’ĂȘtre is built around having his finger on the next pulse. What does one do when one’s own pulse weakens, both literally and aesthetically?

Egan moves back and forth in time in good postmodern style; that is, never sequentially and never in a cause-and-effect fashion. That structure has led some critics to cry foul over a Pulitzer for literature. They assert that the work is really a short story collection rather than a novel. I disagree; the stories are so interdependent that none could stand alone in a comprehensible way. My brief with the novel is that it isn’t (novel); that is, aside from the idea mentioned above, it’s not terribly original. Does anyone still feel that a story must be told chronologically? Not that many books and movies wouldn’t be all the better for doing so, including this one. The book’s structure seems contrived rather than unique or necessary, but this may be because Egan is not a great stylist. The book is diverting, but not one that will make you marvel over the elegance of its language, its evocative imagery, or its unforgettable characters. The latter, in fact, are so vacuous and shallow that days after you’ve read this book, you probably won’t remember any of them.

So why read it at all? I’d say for the same reason you read a fan magazine or a work of pulp fiction--it’s breezy, mildly entertaining, and easy on the brain. If that makes it sound like classic beach reading, that’s what I think it is. A Pulitzer Prize winner? Oh dear! I suspect that ten years from now this selection will be considered in the same what-were-they-thinking? category as awarding the 1976 Best Picture Oscar to Rocky. It might be a good idea to get some real readers on the Pulitzer committee; discussion groups formed around the book are far less effusive in their praise than critics. Many of the readers have the audacity to call this a rather ordinary book. The nerve!

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