Pissed at Pulitzer

A Visit from the Goon Squad - Jennifer Egan

For the past two weeks I’ve been trying to get into the Goon Squad (which I have nicknamed it).  I’m sure everyone reading this blog has heard of this loathsome book that has won every award known to man for no apparent reason.  (Examples: The Pulitzer, National Book Critics Circle Award, Los Angeles Times Book Prize Winner, Pen/Faulkner Finalist).   I should have known I would despise it after it was a best book of the year by Oprah.  I’m pretty sure my hate for this book fueled my finishing it.  I was on page 100 ready to quit and in my world, once you cross the one-hundred threshold you keep going with pure drive.  This time, pure angst.

This book is bad. Capital, bold face, strike through, bad.  A Visit from the Goon Squad.

I’m not sure why everyone on goodreads.com says that they didn’t like it because they aren’t experimental creative writing majors. I’m an experimental creative writing major and this was one of the worst books I’ve ever read.  EVER. I’m so disappointed at every committee, or board that bet on this novel as a winner.  What were they thinking?  Yes, it’s experimental.  Yes, there is a whole sixty pages of power-point towards the end of the book.  Does that make it award-winning?  Should I have included graphs and diagrams in my upcoming best-seller to get the attention of a committee that has been choosing books since 1917?  I thought Pulitzer was a crowd of balding men who had tweed jackets with cloth elbow scabs?  I thought they all looked like Dr. Phiney from Boy Meets World or my college Shakespeare professor.  I thought these were literary intellectuals.

Clearly, I was wrong.  Have I thoroughly expressed my disappointment?

Let me explain the pseudo plot.  The book is about two people primarilly: Sasha and Bennie.  Bennie is an aging record executive who has had one good band that everyone was overwhelmed with and since has been underwhelming.  He is divorced and has a son, Chris.  Sasha is his assistant (at one point) who is a rebel and steals things (as in a sickness).  We see her at one point going to a therapist, living in Europe in a tenant house, and her as a child when her father beats her mother and her uncle brings her to the beach as an escape.  Otherwise, the middle stories are about those who float in and out of their lives: those that they date, or fuck, or play bubbles in the bathtub with, those friends who have died drowning, or tried to die in hopes of rising again like a Phoenix.

The whole essence of the book is to basically say Time is a Goon.   All of the characters age, pass away, learn to live with themselves or not, and they all do this over time.  They triumph or they fail.  Even minor characters like Alex who has sex with Sasha in the beginning and ends up working for Bennie in the end.  Not only is the plot miserable, half the people you can’t keep up with, La Doll (who the eff…in the beginning) because they are too flat to remember by the time you get to their main section.  And let me just give an example of Egan’s writing:

Egan's planner. I thought this was pretty sweet.

“I could tell by the number of plastic packets of soy sauce and chopsticks included with my delivery that Fong Yu believed I was serving string beans to a party of eight or nine vegetarians.  Does the chemical composition of Jagermeister cause a craving for string beans?  Is there some property of string beans that becomes addictive on those rare occasions when they’re consumed with Jagermeister?  I asked myself these questions as I shoveled string beans into my mouth, huge crunchy forkfuls, and watched TV – weird cable shows, most of which I couldn’t identify and didn’t watch much of.  You might say I created my own show out of all those other shows, which I suspected was actually better than the shows themselves.  In fact, I was sure of it” (96).

Next to this passage that I highlighted in yellow for proof of my complete and utter grittiness, I wrote: Reason #957 that I loathe this book.

There’s so many reasons that I can’t stand this book, or just looking at it next to me on this table, that I’ve decided to make a list for you:

  1. Character Sketches.  In any creative writing classes, teachers usually assign character sketches where you can learn about your character.  I don’t even know these characters.  I know them in an ensemble with one another.  I know who one of them slept with one time.  And maybe that’s what she’s going for: a facebook of characters.  People you know because you’re sorority sister slept with their brother in 9th grade.  To further this point, here’s a list of characters…I’m sure to not hit them all.
    1. Sasha: Kleptomaniac
    2. Bennie: Aging music professional who drinks gold in his coffee
    3. Chris: Bennie’s son who has an unfortunate home life.
    4. Stephanie: Bennie’s ex-wife who catches him cheating with a robotic blonde from the country club who once thought he was a terrorist.
    5. Rob: Sasha’s best friend in college who is in love with her and dies.
    6. La Doll: Aging publicist who starts work for a general inflicting genocide to make his image wonderful and squeaky clean.
    7. LuLu: La Doll’s daughter who almost witnesses Kitty’s death.
    8. Kitty: Washed up movie actress that Stephanie’s brother almost assaults and rapes.
    9. Jule: Stephanie’s brother who just got out of Riker’s for attempting to assault Kitty in an interview.
    10. Lou: Record executive who cheats on any woman he ever loves and dies without any real connection to the reader.
    11. Charlie: Lou’s daughter who is destined for sluttiness.
    12. Rolph: Lou’s son who kills himself at twenty-eight.
    13. Alex: Boy Sasha sleeps with and takes a bath with in her kitchen-tub in the beginning.
    14. Rebecca: Alex’s later wife.
    15. Drew: Sasha’s college boyfriend and later husband.
    16. Ally: Sasha’s eventual daughter who creates the entire powerpoint section.
    17. Lincoln: Ally’s little brother obsessed with the pauses in music.
    18. Bix: Black man dating Lizzie (Conservative Texan) who’s friends with Sasha in college.
    19. Lizzie:  Conservative Texan, best friends with Sasha.
    20. Reha: Best friend of young girl who Lou has sex with by the pool where Rolph can see and while Rolph is in love with best friend.
    21. Scotty: Slide guitar aficionado.  Member of the “Flaming Dildos” band.
    22. Alice: Scotty’s ex-girlfriend and ex-wife.  Never really fits in with girl side of the high school clique.
    23. Jocelyn: Secretly in love with Rolph, but sleeps with Lou while he’s married.
    24. Mildred:  Bird Watcher who goes on Safari with Lou and his children.
    25. Mindy: Lou’s second or third wife who goes on Safari with Lou and winds up sleeping with Alfred.  However, Lou finds out and marries her out of competitive spirit and they have two children.  One, that later runs Lou’s business.
    26. Arc: The General’s main man who also discusses him on the phone with La Doll.  (He may be one of my favorite characters).
    27. The General: Mass genocide dictator needs an image resharpen.
  2. The second thing I hate about the book, is the rambling futures.  One second we’re in the present learning about a group of friends and the next two paragraphs tell us a short synopsis of the rest of their lives.  I think I hate this because everything you ever learn about writing (not saying that the rules aren’t for breaking) has said, “show, don’t tell.”  And this is telling us something we should have had to unwind, to figure out.  I want to think while I read, I want to be there.  This book doesn’t allow you to be there, it only allows to watch while she kills off all the best characters and leaves the one’s still standing to fend against their regrets and ruin.  For example:
    1. “She takes hold of his hands.  As they move together, Rolph feels his self-consciousness miraculously fade, as if he is growing up right there on the dance floor, becoming a boy who dances with girls like his sister.  Charlie feels it, too.  In fact, this particular memory is one she’ll return to again and again, for the rest of her life, long after Rolph has shot himself in the head in their father’s house at twenty-eight: her brother as a boy, hair slicked flat, eyes sparkling, shyly learning to dance.  But the woman who remembers won’t be Charlie; after Rolph dies, she’ll revert to her real name – Charlene – unlatching herself forever from the girl who danced with her brother in Africa.  Charlene will cut her hair short and go to law school.  When she gives birth to a son she’ll want to name him Rolph, but her parents will still be too shattered.  So she’ll call him that privately, just in her mind, and years later, she’ll stand with her mother among a crowd of cheering parents beside a field, watching him play, a dreamy look on his face as he glances at the sky” (83).
  3. The last chapter is a small version of Super Sad True Love Story with the devices that tell you all about the people who pass you on the street (weight, eye-color, sexability, loveability, friendability).  It’s like she wanted to discuss the future, and technology, and what facebook can do to people if not managed, and yet…she fails, with epic gusto, again.
  4. The reviewers talk about romance on the back blurbs.  Let’s have a serious moment: There is no love in this book.  Or none, that I believe to be real.  The connections weren’t made well enough by the author.
  5. The writing isn’t even beautiful.  The most beautiful line talks about Lulu having “her doe’s knees tucked under her” (154).
  6. The best section of the book is La Doll, Lulu, The General, and Kitty because at least then there is back story, there is narration, there is a real connection between myself and the characters who are not just flat pieces of cardboard thirteen-year-old’s stand in their room.

I’ll stop.  I think I’ve given everyone enough.  Please let me know what you thought.  I guarantee it won’t change my opinion unless I read this book again thirty years from now and find a magic genius has transformed the pages into literary wonder.

But, I’d still like to know (especially those that liked the book) what in the hell you thought….

Here are the links:

12 thoughts on “Pissed at Pulitzer

  1. grainsifter says:

    You made me r.o.f.l. (well, not quite, that would be kind of be out of character for me) with your rant. I love that you’re not afraid to go against the status quo, instead spelling out the things that made you dislike it so with such humorous detail. I admit I haven’t yet read it…although I do have friends who loved it, partly because often hyped books (or movies, etc.) often disappoint me, so I turn down the volume and wait a bit before diving in. Not sure if I ever will with this one…but I do appreciate your critiques!

    • Cassie says:

      I am the same exact way! I never read anything that everyone else is obsessed with because I just know I’ll hate it. I’m not even sure which comes first now – my hate, or the actual book being bad fueling my hate. Honestly, this book was just bad. I would have hated it even if I picked it up at B&N just for having a rad cover. It’s terrible. Please, please, please if you read it, blog about it so I can see your opinion. What did all your friends like about it so much? And thanks for the kind words, as always :) Hope one day I can make you out of character R.O.F.L.

  2. Idiotekque says:

    Well now, that was entertaining. I don’t read nearly enough books, but listening to your review, I sort of want to read this book simply because it sounds like it sucks so epically bad. I love breaking rules in writing structure, because I think writing is an art form. If you’re painting a picture, by all means do something interesting and different; just don’t smear excrement on the canvas, right?

    Anyways, thanks for the laugh. I think I’ll follow you.

    • Cassie says:

      Haha. You should read it. I want as many opinions as I can get. I just can’t even fathom people thinking this book was good. But maybe I went into it thinking I was going to hate it. Completely agree about writing as art….but it is meant to express not impress and I think she was more of an author saying “look what I can do!”

  3. ClaireMcA says:

    Lethal review, good on you for baring all, I found it interesting in a kind of detached way and I was intrigued by the vague connections between stories, it didn’t irritate me so much as make me stand back and try and figure it out – a little like visiting a foreign country and observing strange rituals. So for me it was ok, though I wouldn’t put it on my recommend list and I am still wondering what was prize winning about it, except that it is a little different to much of what is written, but then I don’t know enough about the Pullitzer to say what might have set this apart, sometimes a controversial choice gets column inches?

    That’s funny that you liked the General chapter the most because something about it was nagging at me and later I realised that there’s little or no sense of place in any of the chapters and especially in the General one, perhaps due to recent global conflicts I was imagining Libya, but there was little to create a sense of where they were. I know description of environment is a little old fashioned, but the scene was less credible and I found myself thinking she was writing about a place she had never been to.

    • Cassie says:

      I never even thought of location – I think I just assumed it wasn’t given in the General because of his ambiguity and having to move because of threats and so on. You are right though the book skips through New York and Africa, but otherwise leaves you misplaced in the universe and maybe that was a trick of the author or something we’re just over-analyzing.

      I generally liked the general chapter because of LuLu – I liked the idea that a mother would put her daughter in this sort of situation and the dramatics with Kitty and the idea of the man on the phone – Arc I think it was…I just think that part had more of a plot than the rest, although I didn’t remember who La Doll was at all from the beginning when I was reading.

      I felt misplaced in every which way throughout the whole book and my failure to connect to anything really drove my hate.

      So glad to hear another opinion though even though you may not have hated it with quite the same angst as I did. You’re right though it was interesting even though I still have no respect for it.

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