Monday, September 3, 2012

Review of: A Visit from the Goon Squad

A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan - book review

My rating: 1/5

What a bunch of crap.

A thing I find unbearable is the forced pathos of one-dimensional characters.

Take Benny, for instance. Benny can't get an erection. So he puts gold flakes in his coffee and stares at his assistant's tits with various degrees of discretion. We get it. Why then are we led through the ritual over and over? Benny starts his day with a coffee, stares at assistant's tits, self-scans and finds no erection. Later, in the car with the assistant, he stares at her tits. No reaction. But wait! Later, he's banging on a cowbell accompanying a rock band he might be signing (he's a music producer), stares at his assistant's tits and, lo and behold! Erection! We are thus given to understand that music is a big part of his erection process. But then, he has his erection shattered by shameful memories that assail him. So now we understand that his erectile dysfunction is a product of a failed marriage, failed relationships and disaffection for the music industry. The ageing music fan who feels that music was once grand and is now a lifeless aseptic hulk is a tired, fatigued cliché that I hoped I wouldn't encounter in this book, only to have it thrown in my face. Benny is just a hodge podge of music producer clichés. Divorced. Has a son who he would like to be close to but who remains distant.

As for his assistant, Sasha, she has her own first-world problem, a galloping kleptomania of which secret she only divulges to her shrink, Coz. She mentally spells out that she and Coz are writing a narrative together that ends with her being cured of kleptomania (never mind that this is the readers’ job, not the writers’), which is just another way of saying that Coz is a stand-in for the author, which is rather facile (and also cliché). Add to this that she only seems to come awake, sexually, when her partner is remotely aware of her stash of stolen goods. So her character is basically Benny, only younger and pretty (i.e. female cliché) while Benny is older, wilful and entrepreneurial (male cliché).

Then comes Rhea, who used to love Benny, and they were part of a punk band called the Flaming Dildos (wow, how long did it take to come up with that name?), and they went to concerts and they'd all dance near the stage and Rhea mentions that Benny was the only one who really listened to the music. How cute. Benny is special. Benny profoundly cares about music in the midst of a jaded generation of hedonistic party-goers.

This nauseating assembly of trite point-of-view fragments appears to hail from the we-live-in-new-york-and-make-lots-of-money-and-sleep-with-the-wrong-people-and-share-it-with-our-shrink school of literature and film. It’s basically a soap opera, wherein the reader is invited to keep track of who’s screwing who, and try to muster some form of reaction to it that somehow ignores the fact that this book is about people with, yes, I’ll say it again, first-world problems.

Oh sure, it has its’ share of divorces, suicides, betrayals, but the problems are self-inflicted, and I’d much rather be reading about people fighting real diseases than people succumbing to the psychological equivalent of auto-immune disorders.

Mostly though, the writing is terrible. The situations are forced, and there’s no depth or insight anywhere. And it’s fraught with clichés.

Take the following extract, about Lou (music producer) and Mindy (anthropology student) on a safari:

‘After his swim, Lou goes in search of spears and snorkeling gear, resisting his temptation to follow Mindy back to their room, though clearly she’d like him to. She’s gone bananas in the sack since they left the tents (women can be funny about tents) – hungry for it now, pawing off Lou’s clothes at odd moments, ready to start again when he’s barely finished. He feels tenderly toward Mindy, now that the trip is winding down. She’s studying something at Berkeley, and Lou has never traveled for a woman. It’s doubtful that he’ll lay eyes on her again.’

Sound schematic? The whole book is like that! Guess how this story ends? Lou marries Mindy, because though he was going to dump her, she made him jealous by eyeing another male. I had trouble reading it because I was rolling my eyes the whole time.

Are we ready for another example? Here goes, a history of a character Jules who’s a failed writer:
‘he’d gotten himself a job at Harper’s, an apartment on Eighty-first and York, and three roommates – two of whom now edited magazines. The third had won a Pulitzer.’

Not only is this blatantly schematic, it’s hardly believable. The writing style is contemporary, which could lull into an illusion of realism, if everything wasn’t so over-the-top, trading loudness for substance.

This is the eerie announcement that the worst of television has found its way into literature.

Still don’t believe me? Here’s one more example, about a rock-and-roll guitarist (everyone in this book is either a musician or screwing one or hoping to screw one):
‘Bosco was unrecognizable as the scrawny, stovepipe-panted practitioner of a late-eighties sound somewhere between punk and ska, a hive of redheaded mania who had made Iggy Pop look indolent onstage. More than once, club owners had called 911 during Conduits shows, convinced that Bosco was having a seizure.’

Forget, for a moment, the shameless (and lazy) name-dropping of Iggy Pop. Are we really supposed to believe that a club owner will see a guitarist being vigorous onstage and call 911 because it looks like a seizure? Are we further supposed to believe that this has happened multiple times?

Please.

Gimme a break.

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