A Visit from the Goon Squad

A Visit from the Goon Squad screenshot

I’m including this review partly out of a desire for completism, but partly because I wonder whether a publisher would consider developing such an app for a novel now, even for an experimental yet popular novel like this one. Evan Schnittmann’s claim a few months earlier that the enhanced ebook was dead has mostly come to pass…

In its print form, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad last month deservedly won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It has also now been published as an app by Constable & Robinson.

Somewhere between a novel and a collection of short stories, Goon Squad comprises thirteen chapters that skip forwards and backwards in time, offering glimpses of its recurring cast of characters at significant points in their lives.

Each chapter turns the spotlight on a different individual, bringing a new voice centre stage while simultaneously offering an alternative perspective on characters we’ve already met. We thus meet music biz executive Bennie Salazar in the second chapter, our curiosity already piqued by an earlier reference to his habit of sprinkling gold flakes in his coffee; in later sections, we see him as a young punk musician, as a successful businessman struggling to reconnect with childhood friends, and as a married man failing to adjust to life amongst the middle-classes.

On opening the app version, the reader is presented first with the novel’s epigraph (from Proust’s In Search of Lost Time), then a choice of three options: to read or listen to the novel, or to view the liner notes. (A fourth option, ‘about’, offers information on the app, author, and an extract from Egan’s forthcoming novel: Look at Me.)

Choosing to ‘read’ brings up an ebook text in a choice of four fonts, and with a range of text sizes wide enough to satisfy most readers. The ‘listen’ option adds to this an audio recording taken from BBC Audiobooks America, and narrated by Roxana Ortega, whose reading is broadly fine, though it does – to my ear, at least – at times take on an oddly annoying mechanical tone. Switching from reading to listening is as easy as tapping a speaker icon at the top of the page, though the promised ‘sentence-by-sentence audio sync’ seems more like page-by-page: it’s not possible, for instance, to tap on a particular sentence to hear it read aloud.

The ‘liner notes’, an appropriate metaphor for a work largely set within the music industry, offer comments from the author detailing each chapter’s inspirations, plus links to Wikipedia and iTunes for the many songs and artists referenced. In a savvy marketing move, the app also allows readers can also share extracts from the novel to their Facebook pages. Another customisation option builds on the non-chronological structure of Goon Squad to offer the reader the chance – once they’ve read the whole book in its original order – to reshuffle the chapters chronologically, or randomly.

At last month’s London Book Fair Digital Conference, Bloomsbury’s Head of Print and Digital Evan Schnittman dismissed the book app as dead, claiming that the idea of innovation in the reading process was, outside of education, a non-starter. What A Visit from the Goon Squad demonstrates, however, is that a well-chosen work can benefit enormously from the functionality made possible by the app format. (The penultimate chapter, for instance, in the form of a Powerpoint presentation, almost inevitably works far better on a screen than on a printed page.) This intricate and fascinating ‘novel’ is made an even more rewarding read on screen than it is on the page.

Originally written for FutureBook on 9 May 2011

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