A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Everything is ending. But not yet.

(originally published in the May issue of The Rockford Independent Press)

By BENJAMIN TAYLOR

Jennifer Egan has, for the past dozen years or so, proven time and again to be one of the more formally innovative American fiction writers working today. Her 2001 novel Look at Me plays with contemporary conflations of image and identity in telling the story of an emotionally withered model (from Rockford, incidentally) whose facial reconstruction following a horrific accident dramatically alters her experience of Manhattan’s social topography. Her 2007 book The Keep creatively (if unevenly) reimagines the gothic novel to dissect a relationship between two cousins haunted in different ways by their shared and individual pasts.

A Visit From the Goon Squad continues Egan’s exploration of the sedimented nature of identity through formal experimentation. In this instance, Egan subverts the conventions of the “rock novel” to examine the intersecting lives of a number of individuals associated with one Bennie Salazar, founder and CEO of Sow’s Ear Records, and his neurotic kleptomaniac assistant Sasha. It’s thought-provoking in a wistful way, thick with an almost elegiac sense of nostalgia, yet humorous and peppered with enough glimpses of humanity in its most bumbling and earnest sense to avoid draining the reader of any and all vestiges of hope. Just to get the accolades out of the way, A Visit From the Goon Squad was one of the most-decorated books of 2010, winning both the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction.

Employing thirteen vignettes rather than a conventionally straightforward narrative, Egan jumps from character to character, shifting narrative perspective as well as chronology. The effect is a bit disorienting in the first few sections, but ultimately edifying. The reader accesses Bennie and Sasha obliquely, viewing snapshots of various moments in their individual lives and (Platonic) relationship, and seeing them through the eyes of various friends, lovers, and family members. These lacunae in the narratives of Bennie and Sasha’s inner lives keep the reader at a distance that accentuates the fragility of the threads that bind Bennie and Sasha to their respective and mutual pasts.

The novel – or collection of linked short stories (three of the thirteen sections were published as stand-alone pieces in The New Yorker) – spans more than 50 years, from the mid-1970s to somewhere in the neighborhood of 2025 (more on that in a bit), and is above all a meditation on the manner in which those threads twist and fray as time passes, dreams evolve or die, and relationships develop or fade.

A Visit From the Goon Squad opens with Sasha at her therapist’s, discussing her kleptomania and recounting a recent date she had with Alex, who reappears as the focus of the final chapter. Two significant thefts occur during the chapter, and Sasha’s world-weary and damaged personality is revealed in its sad entirety. The narrative then shifts to a middle-aged Bennie, driving with the son he struggles to understand en route to meeting with a once-promising sister band. Bennie’s decline from a hotshot record producer to living anachronism is symbolized nicely by the gold flakes he sprinkles in his coffee in accordance with an Aztec myth that maintains the gold promotes virility. Bennie meets up with Sasha at the sisters’ home, ponders the desire he realizes he’s always had for her, but remains resigned to the impossibility of its fulfillment.

The third section, “Ask Me if I Care,” moves back to Bennie’s youth, when he performed as the bassist in a Bay Area punk rock group named the Flaming Dildos. Bennie’s bandmates and female groupies are introduced along with Lou, a famous musician and producer who’s boning one of the Dildos’ groupies (Lou clearly being a stand-in for Lou Reed). The next section, “Safari,” focuses on Lou six years earlier on a safari with Rolph, his eight-year old son, Charlene, his almost-pubescent daughter, and his girlfriend-cum-assistant Mindy. This section, while having no direct bearing on the Benny-Sasha main narrative, shows why Egan is such a penetrating writer. The safari provides the backdrop for a four-way power struggle pitting Lou against Mindy, Lou against Charlene, Charlene against Rolph, and Lou against Rolph. The conflict is mostly tacit, but illuminates the irreducible characteristics of each character’s place in life, the transitoriness of that place, and the inability to communicate one’s inner life to others. Lou and two of the Dildos’ groupies reappear in the next section at Lou’s deathbed, the two girls now in their forties, one a mother of three, one a recovering heroin addict muddling through.

The middle part of the book returns to Bennie and Sasha, beginning with Bennie and his wife Stephanie growing accustomed to their (now) privileged life in Crandale, where they join the Country Club. The reader learns later that the marriage ultimately fails, and Bennie’s growing disillusionment with the manicured opulence surrounding him in contrast to Stephanie’s twice-weekly tennis dates with a Barbie-esque neighbor certainly presages this. A later section, “Out of Body,” returns the narrative to Sasha and provides the most poignantly-written part of the entire book. Written in the second person, “Out of Body” shows young Sasha as a student at NYU through the eyes of her adored best friend Rob. In the course of the chapter, Rob realizes with wrenching clarity that he’s been in love with Sasha the entire time – too late, as Sasha’s developed a strong relationship with her boyfriend (and future husband) Drew. The clarity of Rob’s love for Sasha and his conflicted feelings toward himself (the reader learns he’s returned to NYU after three months recovering from a suicide attempt) and their mutual friends culminate in an extremely moving and tragic conclusion.

The novel ends with Bennie, Alex, and Scotty, one of his former bandmates, living in a frankly dystopian New York sometime in the middle of the 2020s. Bennie has receded to the margins of the music business, Alex is marginally employed and looking to work for Bennie, and Scotty making baleful music to the accompaniment of his slide guitar. Egan swells quite a bit on her vision of America circa 2025 in this final section, and her vision isn’t exactly optimistic. Yet Egan isn’t pessimistic enough to leave the reader without a grain of hope. The novel ends with two striking images that throw its meditations on time, memory, and identity into sharp relief: a quasi-spontaneous concert given by Scotty that, while technologically mediated and organized, transcends digital distance to celebrate human togetherness; and Bennie and Alex standing before the entrance to what had been Sasha’s apartment long ago, Bennie sighing, “I hope she found a good life. She deserves it.”

Despite its overall excellence, A Visit From the Goon Squad does strike a few false notes. To begin with, there are multiple instances in which, discussing a character toward the end of a section, Egan rips off a few paragraphs telling the reader exactly what would happen to that character in the future. It’s understandable that expanding the novel to include enough vignettes to show these future fates would harm the flow and structure of the finished product, yet these “Many years later…,” “’X’ would go on to…” et cetera feel out of place and seem unnecessary.

The greater problem is Egan’s forced futurism. Some critics – such as the New York Times’ Janet Maslin – found the sections toward the end of the novel that take place in the relatively distant future brave and prescient examinations of future society. And I guess that’s the rub with writing about the future – the world in which we live changes so rapidly that a casual inclusion of “sci-fi” elements seems unconvincing and will inevitably be dated long before the designated year. Egan seemed to try to emphasize that even in that future imperfect, humanity mutually shared still matters in a sense that accelerated technological development can’t quite capture; yet, she spends enough of the final two sections describing the disastrous effects of global warming, advances in mobile technology, fields of solar panels, (even more) ubiquitous government surveillance, and two generations of unnamed and undescribed war that the pathos which galvanized the previous sections of the book fades into the background. Without devoting the energy and page length to flesh out a future world fully – which would, of course, have been impractical in this instance – the jargon, text speak, and glimpses of Dystopia, USA just come across as forced.

All in all, however, A Visit From the Goon Squad is a moving and intelligently written novel justly deserving of its accolades.

A Visit From the Goon Squad

Jennifer Egan

Anchor, 340 pages

$14.95

ISBN: 0-307-47747-7

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~ by Benji on 19 August 2011.

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