I recently finished Jennifer Egan’s critically acclaimed and Pulitzer prize-winning novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, and I had some conflicting thoughts about it, so I thought I would come here and set my thoughts into writing. Overall, I really enjoyed the book, which is really a collection of separate narratives artfully woven together and interconnected through time and space. The “goon squad” in the book is time, (“‘Time’s a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?’ Scotty shook his head. ‘The goon won.'”) And time is a recurring theme throughout the book, where characters are shown in different parts throughout their life, and where sudden flash forwards make small interactions more poignant. It’s a difficult book to summarize with its non-linear timeline and constant changes from narrative perspective, moving from third-person, to first-person, to one chapter narrated entirely in powerpoint slides (one of my favorites). And while I wouldn’t call Egan’s writing magical realism, there is an almost supernatural way that characters’ lives intersect, and also a haunting poetic beauty to some of her chapters, each one of which could be read on its own as a short story, but that become all the more poignant when viewed as a connected whole.
When ‘Goon Squad’ is good, it’s really good. Egan profiles a woman named Sasha, and you see her evolution from a small girl growing up in a home with domestic abuse, to a troubled teen selling herself in Naples, to a Columbia student coping with a suicidal best friend, to a record executive’s assistant with a secret penchant for stealing, to a married mother with two children. The Naples chapter is one of the best, narrated by Sasha’s uncle Ted–sent to Naples by Sasha’s mother to find her and bring her home. Here are two of my favorite passages from the Naples chapter:
1. “Yet each disappointment Ted felt in his wife, each incremental deflation, was accompanied by a seizure of guilt; many years ago, he had taken the passion he felt for Susan and folded it in half, so he no longer had a drowning, helpless feeling when he glimpsed her beside him in bed: her ropy arms and soft, generous ass. Then he’d folded it in half again, so when he felt desire for Susan, it no longer brought with it an edgy terror of never being satisfied. Then in half again, so that feeling desire entailed no immediate need to act. Then in half again, so he hardly felt it. His desire was so small in the end that Ted could slip it inside his desk or a pocket and forget about it, and this gave him a feeling of safety and accomplishment, of having dismantled a perilous apparatus that might have crushed them both. Susan was baffled at first, then distraught; she’d hit him twice across the face; she’d run from the house in a thunderstorm and slept at a motel; she’d wrestled Ted to the bedroom floor in a pair of black crotchless underpants. But eventually a sort of amnesia had overtaken Susan; her rebellion and hurt had melted away, deliquesced into a sweet, eternal sunniness that was terrible in the way that life would be terrible, Ted supposed, without death to give it gravitas and shape. He’d presumed at first that her relentless cheer was mocking, another phase in her rebellion, until it came to him that Susan had forgotten how things were between them before Ted began to fold up his desire; she’d forgotten and was happy — had never not been happy — and while all of this bolstered his awe at the gymnastic adaptability of the human mind, it also made him feel that his wife had been brainwashed. By him.”
2. “On another day more than twenty years after this one, after Sasha had gone to college and settled in New York; after she’d reconnected on Facebook with her college boyfriend and married late (when Beth had nearly given up hope) and had two children, one of whom was slightly autistic; when she was like anyone, with a life that worried and electrified and overwhelmed her, Ted long divorced–a grandfather–would visit Sasha at home in the California desert. He would step through a living room strewn with the flotsam of her young kids and watch the western sun blaze through a sliding glass door. And for an instant he would remember Naples: sitting with Sasha in her tiny room; the jolt of surprise and delight he’d felt when the sun finally dropped into the center of her window and was captured inside her circle of wire. Now he turned to her, grinning. Her hair and face were aflame with orange light. ‘See,’ Sasha muttered, eyeing the sun. ‘It’s mine.'”
The second excerpt, really shows Egan as a writer. How she switches forwards and backwards deftly within the same paragraph. I particularly loved her use of “flotsam of her young kids” which allows the reader to picture exactly what the floor would look like, without taking away from the main point of the sunset.
My second favorite chapter is the powerpoint chapter, narrated by Sasha’s daughter, Alison. In it Alison details her brother Lincoln’s obsession with rock and roll pauses. The best page is a flow chart called,
“Lincoln Wants to Say/Ends Up Saying:
‘I love you, Dad.’ –> Dad is from Wisconsin. –> I love music. –> Dad loves me. –> Steve Miller is from Wisconsin. –> The Steve Miller Band was popular fifty-something years ago. –> One of their biggest hits was ‘Fly Like an Eagle.’ –> ‘Hey Dad, there’s a partial silence at the end of ‘Fly Like an Eagle,’ with a sort of rushing sound in the background that I think is supposed to be the wind, or maybe time rushing past!’ ‘Good to know, Linc,’ Dad says.”
Egan does a fantastic job of capturing the workings of the mind of a child with autism, and also showing the love that Alison feels towards her brother, and her sadness that her father doesn’t understand him. Sometimes less is more.
Some of my other favorite chapters were narrated by Rhea, a troubled punk rock teen self-conscious about her freckles, (“Hey, Lou goes. He leans down so our faces are together, and stares straight into my eyes. He looks tired, like someone walked on his skin and left footprints. He goes, The world is full of shitheads, Rhea. Don’t listen to them–listen to me. And I know that Lou is one of those shitheads. But I listen.”) and by Scotty, a washed-up slide guitarist (and former friend of Rhea) who catches a fish in the Hudson river and brings it to the swanky office of his former-friend-turned-record-executive Bennie Salazaar.
Here’s a quote from Scotty’s chapter:
“I decided not to think about Bennie. There’s a fine line between thinking about somebody and thinking about not thinking about somebody, but I have the patience and the self-control to walk that line for hours–days, if I have to.
After one week of not thinking about Bennie–thinking so much about not thinking about Bennie that there was barely any room left in my brain for thoughts of any other kind–I decided to write him a letter.”
“‘I came here for this reason: I want to know what happened between A and B.’ Bennie seemed to be waiting for more. ‘A is when we were both in the band, chasing the same girl. B is now.’ I knew instantly that it had been the right move to bring up Alice. I’d said something literally, yes, but underneath that I’d said something else: we were both a couple of asswipes, and now only I’m an asswipe; why? And underneath that, something else: once an asswipe, always an asswipe. And deepest of all: You were the one chasing. But she picked me.”
Scotty is one of the tragic characters. He is there to show us that not everyone makes it out of a rough adolescence, a mother who committed suicide. But even though Scotty is tragic, his chapter contains a dark humor that keeps the reader from fully falling down with Scotty into the pit.
I could go on about the good parts of Goon Squad: the way that Egan succeeds in capturing the mood of the “Forgotten generation” (those rarely discussed Gen X’ers). The novel is both deep and extremely readable. The chapters are heavy, but you can breeze through them at the same time. However, I do have some complaints:
The last chapter, a vision of the future, is my least favorite. I found Egan’s representation of the near-future to be comically bad. It was all about how everyone is “selling out” (paid by record execs to hype artists to their friends) and there’s a lot of handwringing about the perceived overuse of technology, “Everybody sounds stoned because they’re emailing people the whole time they’re talking to you.” Real original, Jennifer. To me, these themes fall flat and seem petty compared to her more compelling statements about the ruthless march of time and finding quiet redemption, so I find it sad that that’s what Egan seemed to choose to end on. There’s also a jab at teeny bopper fandom, where Egan satirizes that the record industry now caters to infants as the industry trendsetters (the infants are called “pointers” because they buy music on their parents’ tablet devices). It’s a petty satire that just comes across as the jaded ramblings of a bitter old person–the literary equivalent of–kids these days don’t know good music if it hit them in the face, blah blah blah. And it also doesn’t jive with the realism in the rest of the novel, the least realistic part being that there will even be a record industry with any kind of influence. Also, Egan’s vision of future textspeak is quite cheesy, with people saying things like: Nu job in th wrks–big $ pos. pls kEp opn mind. Seems more like a vision of the future from a person who still uses a hotmail account (everyone knows future textspeak will consist entirely of emojis, duhhh).
There are a few other chapters that seem more outrageous and less realistic as well, and those were the ones I felt fell flat. The rise and fall of a famed publicist, Dolly AKA La Doll, and her 9-year old queen bee daughter Lulu seem more like caricatures than characters. Some of the more punk rock moments also felt a little contrived (OMG, they’re doing COCAINE, how EDGY). I didn’t love the chapter for Bennie’s wife where she’s devastated when she realizes he’s cheating on her, yet again, when she thought he was done with his philandering ways (GASP). That’s the least punk rock thing ever, she should go out and cheat on him back, or at least keep being a badass at tennis and not a give a fuck; instead she passively crumples into the fetal position in her lawn like some sad housewife, circa 1975 (you’re better than that, Rebecca–you don’t even like him that much!)
Lastly, Bennie Salazaar himself is kind of a snooze: becoming predictably jaded and nostalgic for the “good old days of rock and roll” and he’s a predictably lame father who predictably loves his son, but predictably doesn’t know to express it. Egan does include one satisfying moment of self-awareness for Bennie:
“He remembered his mentor Lou Kline, telling him in the nineties that rock and roll had peaked at Monterey Pop. They’d been at Lou’s house in LA with its waterfalls, the pretty girls Lou always had, his car collection out front, and Bennie had looked into his idol’s famous face and thought, You’re finished. Nostalgia was the end–everyone knew that.”