I had the pleasure of meeting Pulitzer Prize-winner Jennifer Egan at a book event several years ago. She was genuine and friendly while
I stalked her I rambled on awkwardly during the cocktail mixer before excusing herself to clean her andirons go to the ladies’ room. Despite my admiration from afar, I’d never had the opportunity to read one of her novels. When I saw A Visit from the Goon Squad in the bookstore window, I knew this would be my entrée. And what a gripping one it was.
It’s a bit difficult to distill this novel into a sound bite. I’m sure Ms. Egan is beyond this, but I have no idea how she would have written a two-paragraph query letter or encapsulated it into an elevator speech. So let me start with the theme, which is a strange place to start indeed. The “goon squad” is time. “Time’s a goon, right?” Bennie, an aging former punk rocker turned record executive, says. “You gonna let that goon push you around?” And down on his luck, comeback kid Scotty replies, “The goon won.” The message is, of course, that the goon always wins in the end. All of the characters in A Visit from the Goon Squad are dealing with what has become of his or her hopes and dreams. At what point do you realize that it’s over? When can you no longer use the word “someday” and be taken seriously?
But I realize that I’ve just made this novel sound terribly depressing, which it isn’t. If you’ll permit me to take a page from The New York Times’ reviewer Will Blythe (who couldn’t succinctly summarize it either, I’ll have you note). Take a deep breath:
The book starts with Sasha, a kleptomaniac, who works for Bennie, a record executive, who is a protégé of Lou who seduced Jocelyn who was loved by Scotty who played guitar for the Flaming Dildos, a San Francisco punk band for which Bennie once played bass guitar (none too well), before marrying Stephanie who is charged with trying to resurrect the career of the bloated rock legend Bosco who grants the sole rights for covering his farewell “suicide tour” to Stephanie’s brother, Jules Jones, a celebrity journalist who attempted to rape the starlet Kitty Jackson, who one day will be forced to take a job from Stephanie’s publicity mentor, La Doll, who is trying to soften the image of a genocidal tyrant because her career collapsed in spectacular fashion around the same time that Sasha in the years before going to work for Bennie was perhaps working as a prostitute in Naples where she was discovered by her Uncle Ted who was on holiday from a bad marriage, and while not much more will be heard from him, Sasha will come to New York and attend N.Y.U. and work for Bennie before disappearing into the desert to sculpture and raise a family with her college boyfriend, Drew, while Bennie, assisted by Alex, a former date of Sasha’s from whom she lifted a wallet, soldiers on in New York, producing musicians (including the rediscovered guitarist Scotty) as the artistic world changes around him with the vertiginous speed of Moore’s Law.
Jennifer Egan’s writing is masterful. She plays with time and point of view. She has about thirty pages of diagrams smack dab where the climax should be. If she were in one of my classes, I would probably have told her to cut it out. Knock it off. You’re breaking the rules. (Note: you have to know the rules to break them.) The story runs like a Tom Wolfe novel where the characters are leading different lives, but they all intersect in some way. A character who seems peripheral will show up later as the plot linchpin.
Egan demands a lot from her readers. Each chapter is told by a different character. No character is repeated twice. The readers aren’t clued in to which character is now telling the story. Sometimes it took me pages to figure it out, and once I did, I felt compelled to reread. Honestly, this set-up bothers me a bit. Why make it difficult for readers to follow along? I mean, we’re not talking as convoluted as Moby-Dick (sorry Melville fans), but it is a bit challenging. Add to that narrator shift a point of view shift. Sometimes a chapter is in first person. The next chapter might be in third. And, as with one gut-wrenching chapter, second person. Sometimes we even move from third person close to third person omniscient. But here’s what is amazing about all of that (writers take note): with each narrator and POV shift, the narrator changes tone of voice. Yes! They are as distinct as Kim Kardashian and Condoleezza Rice. And then add to all of the above the shifts in time. The 13 chapters range over about 50 years (I think) going backward and forward in time.
A Visit from the Goon Squad is certainly form over function. The characters are extremely compelling but not exactly as themselves. They are compelling with regard to how the goon squad is going to have its way with them. This is not a “lazy reader” novel. This is a “bring it like you mean it” novel. Bring your energy and your attention, and you will be richly rewarded. Egan breaks the rules with intention. With every page, I became aware that she was forging a new path. Maybe the way one might have watched Picasso paint or Michelangelo sculpt. Something new is happening here. The bar has been raised.