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