A Visit from the Goon Squad

The Year of Reading Dangerously – Jennifer Egan

If you had asked me about the ‘goon squad’ a few months ago I could only have directed you to the David Bowie song ‘Fashion’ – a not entirely inappropriate link given that A Visit from the Goon Squad is a novel about both music and time. Bowie even merits a mention, though only to ascribe the shortness of the pause in ‘Young Americans’ to chickening out. A goon is either a fool or a thug – and therefore often a mindless thug – and the goon squad in Egan’s novel is time, trampling over the lives of her characters, pushing them around with brutal insistence. In Bowie’s song the goon squad is (I think) the trendsetters, equally merciless in deciding direction. Egan’s novel is also about trendsetters: all her characters are involved in some way in music, trying to be, spot or sell the next big thing.

The novel revolves around the character of Sasha, whom we meet her in the first chapter on a “lame date”, stealing a wallet from a woman’s handbag. She steals not out of necessity but out of compulsion: hording the objects she takes in her small flat, each one able to remind her of a particular moment:

“It contained years of her life compressed.”

The novel itself is like that heap of objects (“illegible yet clearly not random”): it may revolve around Sasha but only inasmuch as she is the strongest link between the chapters, each of which captures its own moment in time. This strategy is clear by chapter 2 where the narrative slips back in time and we find Sasha working for Bennie Salazar, who in the first chapter is “her old boss”. This is not, however, simply a time shift – narrative focus also shifts from Sasha to Bennie. This is a gentle introduction to Egan’s intentions as by chapter 3 we’ll have reversed to Bennie’s youth and first person narration.

This interest in time is also evident in the narrative itself, particularly in the music business obsession with youth. In chapter 2 we meet the band Stop/Go, no longer “young and adorable” but “pushing thirty.” Bennie, meanwhile, spends the chapter ingesting gold flakes in order to reinvigorate his sex drive, “his own having mysteriously expired.” Lou, Bennie’s mentor, is found in chapter 3 claiming, “I’ll never get old,” but is quickly revisited as a bed-bound old man in chapter 5. This obsession with youth is taken to extremes in the future set chapters towards the end:

“Now that Starfish, or kiddie handsets, were ubiquitous, any child who could point was able to download music – the youngest buyer on record being a three-month-old in Atlanta, who’d purchased a song by Nine Inch Nails called ‘Ga-ga’.”

The other over-arching theme is the compromises we make as we grow older. As Bennie says to Alex in the final chapter:

“You don’t want to do this…You think it’s selling out. Compromising the ideals that make you, ‘you’.”

When Bennie and his wife, Stephanie, move out to the suburbs, Stephanie’s brother, Jules, is appalled: “You and Bennie? Hanging out with Republicans?” Stephanie keeps her tennis matches at the club a secret from Bennie as if she were having an affair. For those who refuse to compromise the outlook is bleak. Jules ends up in jail after a break down because he will not turn his journalism into publicity pieces for actors; Scotty ends up working as a janitor; Drew drowns. The structure obviously emphasises these compromises, but also removes elements of the character development that lead to them: frequently the reader is left to fill the gap.

The most interesting chapter stylistically is chapter 12, presented as a PowerPoint created by Sasha’s daughter, Alison. While this suffers a little from being very easily read, which makes it seem slight in comparison with the rest of the novel, it does have a number of interesting benefits. The graphics and layout can have a considerable influence on the meaning, and it rejects the left to right bias of normal text giving the impression that you are reading simultaneously all the separate textual elements of each slide. It struck me as both an apt and accurate way to represent a child’s point of view.

A Visit from the Goon Squad is an interesting and entertaining novel. It is not quite the sum of its parts, however. Not all the chapters seem equally relevant: chapter 8 in particular, though possibly my favourite, seems rather tangential – included perhaps more for quality than importance. The stylistic innovation of chapter 12 is off-set by the sameness of the narrative voice throughout the rest of the novel despite a number of different narrators. The excursion into science fiction also seems rather obvious. But it does possess an engaging cleverness in terms of structure and it avoids most of the potential pitfalls of writing about the music business.

Danger rating: tracking characters across time can be tricky, but it’s not nearly as confusing as recent episodes of Dr Who.

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