Review

A Visit From the Goon Squad

by Jennifer Egan

The story begins in the late ’70s California punk scene
and ends in a near future where tattoos and piercings are outmoded
and babies are proficient at text messaging. In the 50 or so
intervening years, a set of characters drift in and out of the
pages, their lives intersecting in often surprising but poignant
ways. Brought together by music and concerned with personal
expression, art and experience, the characters who populate
Jennifer Egan's thoughtful new novel, A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD,
are all dealing with the passage of time and the effects ---
positive, negative and neutral --- it has on their lives, beliefs
and relationships.

Readers first meet Sasha as she lies on her therapist’s
couch discussing her compulsion to steal. From sunglasses to keys,
expensive pens to scarves, she has an ever-growing collection of
disparate objects taken mostly from strangers (never from stores).
In her therapy session, she recalls a date, many years ago, with a
man younger than herself. The one-night stand would've been
forgettable but for an incident with a stolen wallet, her date's
appropriation of one of her trophies and his memory of the night
decades later.

We meet another central character in the next chapter. Bennie
Salazar is an aging music producer who has a euphoric musical
experience while listening to two sisters record a song in their
basement while his son joins in on tambourine. The moment brings
back for Bennie what he loves about music, but it ends in a
humiliating anxiety attack and he is tended to by Sasha, who is, at
this time, his assistant. Bennie's story, like those of the other
figures in the novel, shifts back and forth in time. Next he is a
teenage musician whose friend's inappropriate affair with music
executive Lou Kline not only gets Bennie involved in the business
end of music, but also introduces a whole group of other characters
whose stories are entangled with Bennie, Sasha and their
friends.

Some of these relationships are tenuous, others are confusing,
and often the novel feels like a connection of interrelated short
stories drawing from the same host of characters and themes. Yet
Egan moves easily between stories and settings, and in time. We
find Sasha as a young adult, in the midst of several formative
relationships. Her best friend will soon be dead, and she is years
away from the settled mother and wife we know she will become. We
are also treated to a chapter told from the point of view of
Sasha's young daughter, who explains her autistic brother's
fascination with musical pauses in chart and graph form. Bennie
emerges later in a second marriage confronted by the closest friend
of his youth and an opportunity to make meaningful music once
again.

There are so many characters here --- friends, children,
business associates, the children of business associates --- that
Egan always appears in danger of dropping threads. But that tension
serves the story well because tension seems to be at the heart of
it. We readers know what the characters don't: how it turns out and
how time treats them in the end. We know who survives, who is
radically changed, and who loses the battle against time. There are
elements of satire here as Egan looks critically at journalism, the
music industry, public relations and more. But even as she casts
doubts on intentions and integrity, she is never mean-spirited. In
fact, the characters she creates are sympathetic. Because we see
some of them as children or young adults, we have a sense of what
brought them to the point where --- for example, after witnessing
their mother try to improve the image of a genocidal dictator with
a fuzzy hat and a hug from a down-on-her-luck starlet --- they
would attempt to manipulate public interest in the music of a
reclusive janitor through guerrilla text messaging.

If it all sounds convoluted, it is and it isn't. A VISIT FROM
THE GOON SQUAD is complicated and complex, but because it addresses
some of life's big questions, it is philosophically compelling and
universal. The particulars of each character are unique, yet the
themes remain the same. Despite the occasional fragmentation of the
story, the exploration of identity, music and time make for a
melodic and intelligent novel.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 24, 2011

A Visit From the Goon Squad
by Jennifer Egan

  • Publication Date: June 8, 2010
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf
  • ISBN-10: 0307592839
  • ISBN-13: 9780307592835