A Visit from the Goon Squad
 by Jennifer Egan

Second Collection

Awards won: 2011 Pullitzer Prize for Fiction, 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction

Book Website:

"One key ingredient of so-called experience is the delusional faith that it is unique and special, that those included in it are privileged and those excluded from it are missing out..."

Reviewed by Marko Fong

Is Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad a novel or is it a collection of related short stories? Critics have loved the book enough to award it both the Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle prize, yet it irritates some that Egan’s sliding across characters, generations, decades, styles (we’re not talking first person vs. third, this is notes for a People Magazine feature and Power Point), and tones (from heartfelt to the black humor of a publicist rescuing the image of a murderous dictator to keep her daughter in private school, Selling the General), makes it so difficult to categorize. Here’s my answer: HBO recently announced that it will be transforming Egan’s book into a TV series.

She quotes Proust in her opening pages, but Egan frequently mentions the influence of David Chase’s Sopranos, HBO’s most celebrated series. Equally notable, Egan downplays the rock and roll aspect by insisting she honestly didn’t know much about the music, despite the fact that the stories arguably all touch convincingly on the connected worlds of Bennie Salazar, who goes from talentless punk bass player to jaded record producer to re-energized music visionary and Sasha, his longtime assistant, whose life turns on a moment when she tells an NYU classmate, "Believe we’re going to be the ones who come out the other side okay." The book really isn’t about the music. It’s about time. More specifically it’s about an approach to time that formerly belonged more to episodic television than literature.

Egan was born in 1962, part of the first generation to grow up with TV. Consider popular series from the seventies, Mary Tyler Moore, MASH, Taxi. Each lasted hundreds of episodes in part through the use of a flexible narrative structure. Episodes could focus on any of the main and sometimes even minor characters. They could be in flashback or be future fantasies as in "What if I married Mary?" The tone of episodes could shift from silly, to soap opera, to public service announcement, to touching. The only rule was that there had to be some continuity across episodes and seasons. Details might or might not reappear in a later episode, but events couldn’t un-happen. No central plot ran through all episodes. The progression was cumulative and without pre-ordained dramatic climaxes.

Goon Squad covers forty years from a 1980 Flaming Dildo’s debut at San Francisco’s Mabuhay Gardens to a 2020 kids concert at Manhattan’s Ground Zero featuring the Dildo’s lead guitarist, Pure Language. Much like Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, Egan effectively uses the echoes around September 11 rather than the epicenter of the blast. For instance, in my favorite story, X’s and O’s, Scotty gifts Bennie with a fish wrapped in newspaper then looks out the 35th story window of the producer’s Manhattan office and contemplates how their individual fates could diverge so wildly when he was the one who got both the talent and the girl. Eventually, it resonates with the 2020 concert starring Scotty where Bennie contemplates the glow of recovered friendship from above, a healing that X’s and O’s made appear futile. At that moment too, one realizes that September 11 sits right in the middle of the book’s timeline. The sobering event affects the stories without actually being overtly present in any of them.

The stories appear chronologically random, yet they aren’t. For instance, Goon Squad starts in what appears to be the present with Sasha on a date made through the Internet, Found Objects. When a subsequent story is set in the 80’s, the reader expects the timeline to circle back to a present where Sasha remains a kleptomaniac. Instead, Egan surprises by later pushing fifteen years into the future (hinted at earlier in Safari) which lets Sasha "come out the other side" and fulfill her half of a promise to an NYU classmate. Goon Squad’s episodes are a recursive loop that goes two decades backwards then pushes forward. No character appears in all of the episodes, yet each of the major characters reappear in some. Like series television, the larger plot grows out of accumulating episodes rather than as the result of pre-constructed plan. The reader doesn’t even see the beginning of Sasha’s narrative arc in Naples until close to the end, Good-bye My Love.

Much has been made of the 76 page Powerpoint, Great Rock and Roll Pauses, a treatise by Sasha’s children, one of whom is mildly autistic. Egan has claimed that Pauses is the central metaphor for her book, yet she also admits writing it after sending her manuscript to her publisher. Pauses are the essence of TV narrative. Network series are segmented by commercials, the time between episodes, and the breaks between seasons, all used to heighten interest in the show.

Can Goon Squad be considered a collection of short stories? Of course. Each of the chapters/stories stands on its own in much the same way you can watch a single episode of a television show and still enjoy it. In fact, Egan admits that four of the stories were completed before she had the concept for the collection.When seen as a group, the tentacles between stories deepen the reading experience (think Sgt. Pepper). It’s no less a short story collection, because the stories can and do connect. It’s also more than that.

Series TV may have inspired Goon Squad’s structure , but that’s not what makes this book special. Egan’s restlessly innovative collection stands as an affecting chronicle of the rock and roll or TV generation’s stumble forward to the next generation and century. The things that seem irrevocably lost in early stories mysteriously get rescued in later ones. Time proves both goon and healer as we watch the cynicism and anger of the characters’ younger selves get pounded into something like hope. Late in the collection, Egan includes desert solar collectors that also convert moonbeams into electricity. It’s an apt metaphor for what she’s accomplished. For Egan, even tossed-off moonlight energizes and illuminates.

Read a story from this collection in the New Yorker

Marko Fong lives in Northern California and published most recently in Memoir (and), Solstice Quarterly, Brilliant Corners, and Grey Sparrow Journal. His fiction has been nominated twice for a Pushcart and twice for a PEN/OHenry prize.
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After starting as a writer who couldn’t get accepted to an MFA program, Jennifer Egan is the author of 3 novels and 2 collections of short stories (counting A visit from the Goon Squad) along with several non-fiction articles. She takes pride in writing in widely diverse styles about a broad range of subjects. She lives in New York with her family.