Book Review: Jennifer Egan's A Visit From The Goon Squad

I haven't written about a book for a while, mainly because I made a strict promise to myself months ago to only write about books/movies/music etc that I actually liked on here. This blog has always been my own personal outlet, to write about what I want to, not a place to pan someone else's work, just because it's not of my own personal taste. So, this really means that I haven't been blown away by a book for a really long time... Until now.

A Visit From The Goon Squad

I bought this book last year in the summer, when I was in Santa Cruz with my sister. I had seen it around in every book shop, picked it up, read the back, hesitated and then put it down again. I finally bought it because it really did look like something I should read, and would possibly like. I only picked it up to read it recently because I am trying to get through my "to be read" piles of books before purchasing any new ones. As soon as I started reading the book I recognised the style and realised that I had already read another book by her a few years back (The Invisible Circus), which I hadn't been able to put down.

This is one of those books that I wish I had written myself. You know, when you are reading it, you stop and say "ARGH - I wanted to do something like this!!". Yes, that. Each chapter is written from a different person's standpoint, from a different type, but everyone is linked back to everyone else, brother, mother, sister, father, son, daughter, employer, friend, boyfriend, girlfriend. Spanning 30 or so years, and seemingly disconnected while each chapter jumps to another character and time, the storyline is held in place by a string of music. By that I mean that music is the underlying theme in each chapter and that everything is brought together by music. From the kids in the LA punk scene, via the music label guy who won't sell out to the last concert at the end of the book 10 years from now, music is literally everywhere. Of course I was going to love this book!!

I read a few reviews last night after I had finished the book, and was surprised to read that many people felt they couldn't connect with the characters as I felt a lot of affection for most of them, especially Sasha and Rob. Other people complained about the whole PowerPoint pages nearer the end of the novel - I thought it was a pretty genius way of telling a story, especially seeing as the point was to show how music and structure can help calm the symptoms of autism. Others complained that it didn't deserve the Pulitzer, but then again didn't really give any reasons for why it didn't deserve it. All I can say is that I devoured the book, and I haven't done that for a while. It's quite refreshing to say that because I've been a little disappointed by what I have been trying to read lately.

I cried in the end. I don't want to spoil it for anyone, so I won't really say anything, but the ending is pretty majestic in my opinion. High technology and simple feelings, all brought together by music that everyone knows. Brilliant.

Marge Piercy's Gone To Soldiers: my favourite book of all time

This happens once a year, at least once, sometimes multiple times: all of a sudden I will stop what I am doing and say "it's time to read Gone To Soldiers again." Then I pick it up and fall back into the words that have kept me going for so many years now. I will never ever tire of this book. It happened to me this morning, while I was making my morning tea, wondering through the haze of my mind what on earth I was going to write about today, trying to avoid the inevitable subjects of "2011 was a shitty/great/annoying/interesting year", when I just stopped in my tracks, grabbed my most recent copy of the book and read the first page. Nothing better than starting off your new year with firstly your first bender in 3 years, and then back to reality with your favourite book. The former not to be revisited for a while, the latter a lot more healthy.

The first time I read Marge Piercy's Gone To Soldiers was in 1991 or 1992. One of my mum's friends lent it to her, and as with any book that ever came into our household, I read it. Actually I devoured it. I've always loved historical fiction, especially dealing with WW2, and I love strong women characters that I can relate to. I also love rich, well-constructed prose, words that let you imagine the scene in your own head, help you to picture faces and expressions and leave them imprinted in your mind for a long time after you have read the last page of the book. This is how Marge Piercy writes. Gone To Soldiers will make you laugh, cry, want to hit things and finally feel like you can go out and accomplish anything that you want to, just because you can.

The novel is the story of ten different characters (men and women), interweaving, across the Atlantic and the Pacific, over the space of 5 years of war. Every character is human, and you will probably relate more to one over another, depending on how old you are when you read the book. My favourite will always be Jacqueline, feisty French Jewish girl who has to grow up and deal with the undealable. I sometimes see some of myself in her, more than in any of the other characters. Basically, Jacqueline makes me realise how much potential we have to create something from our lives, while remaining true to our hearts and beliefs. I know it sounds a little silly said like that, but you really need to read her story to understand what I mean.
There is also Bernice who breaks away from her father and runs away to fly aeroplanes; Louise who goes from writing women's stories to writing from the front lines in France via London; Daniel who deciphers code for a living; Jeff, the artist with the survival instinct, and probably the male character who I am the most attracted to; Abra who learns to live with nothing after having everything and all of the others who will touch your lives in a way that you wouldn't expect. An epic story that you can't put down. Life changing? Maybe. Just read it, the least it can do is help you learn a little more about what the regular person went through in the 40's.

I've read this book at least once a year since 1991. I've been through so many copies of it, I've given copies to my friends and it is without a doubt my favourite book of all time. Every time I read it I discover something new and somehow I find comfort in the stories, in a way I find a patch of non-moving ground that I can stand on for a moment to recollect myself.

More information on the book on Marge Piercy's website: Gone To Soldiers
More information on Marge Piercy: Biography

All of Marge Piercy's novels are excellent - once you have read this one try the others (especially Braided Lives).