A Visit from the Goon Squad
by Jennifer Egan
won: 2011 Pullitzer Prize for Fiction, 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction
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
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.
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.