Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad is the first work of fiction I’ve read since June — and it’s as good as everyone has said it is. I tore through it in about a weekend, and I feel like I can’t say enough good things about it. Read it!
Parts of the book were first written as short stories for various publications (Harper’s, Granta, The New Yorker, etc.), and indeed each chapter could be a stand-alone tale, with minor characters in one story becoming the protagonists of the next. The title is a reference to an observation made by an aged and ailing musician, overruling objections to his idea for a tour to promote his final album: “This is reality, right? You don’t look good anymore twenty years later, especially when you’ve had half your guts removed. Time’s a goon, right? Isn’t that the expression?”
That is expressed in this Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel, about a cast of the characters wondering how they got from point A to point B. (The two parts of the book are in fact “A” and “B,” and the last album of the aforementioned musician is “A to B.”) Amazingly, even while they make, in some cases, horrifying choices, Egan is able to make these characters incredibly sympathetic and compelling. (I will note a trigger warning: There is a short scene of sexual assault, unfortunately told from the perspective of the perpetrator, which survivors may find upsetting.)
The stories center around Bennie Salazar, a washed up former musician and record executive, and his assistant, Sasha Grady. As the setting moves back and forth through time, between the 1960s and the 2020s, we also meet Sasha’s uncle Tim; Alex, a man she dates only once but who will later become one of Bennie’s employees, long after Sasha’s been fired; and Sasha’s college friends, one of whom will eventually become her husband, with whom she’ll have two kids. Then there’s Bennie’s high school friends, one of whom introduces him to Lou Kline, a music mogul who will become Bennie’s mentor; Lou’s many wives and kids; and Bennie’s first wife — and her boss and her brother, whose lives intersect via a has-been (though still young) movie star. In one of the more obscure links, the young Samburu warrior that one of Lou’s kids meets on safari in Kenya grows up to marry Bennie’s ex-wife’s boss’s daughter, who also becomes Bennie’s assistant after he fires Sasha. But the characters can’t see all of these connections, much as they are unable to see their own paths between A and B.
As I began thinking of making this next point, I almost started with: “The novel feels timeless until the last two chapters,” which take place in the 2020s. But that seems patently silly, as the stories, told in a non-linear way and from different perspectives, of necessity are grounded in very specific points in time for the reader’s understanding. I think I was responding to the jarring feeling the chapters in the future inspire. Egan is clearly doing her own connection from point A (2010, when the novel was published) to Point B (2021 and beyond, when the novel’s storyline ends). As with many of the other stories, we as readers are able to see how the characters get there (in this case, to a dystopian future), since that path is based on current events in the post-9/11 world and the security and surveillance state.
But technology predictions always make me stifle a giggle, as they’re hardly ever accurate. (Flying cars are just two years away, according to Back to the Future Part II!) Luckily, Egan’s strong writing and character development carries the day, so even as readers stumble through the completely phonetic language of her future’s quasi-text messages, we can see the significance of the academic work of that same future, where, as one character explains to another, the “ethically perfect state . . . doesn’t exist and never existed”:
Her new book was on the phenomenon of word casing, a term she’d invented for words that no longer had meaning outside quotation marks. English was full of these empty words — “friend” and “real” and “story” and “change” — words that had been sucked of their meanings and reduced to husks.
Despite the assessment that we all go the way of these words, the novel nevertheless ends on a hopeful note. Introduced as a young naïf at the beginning of the book, at its end Alex watches a younger version of himself, also new to New York, fumble with the keys to her apartment.
The goon squad visits us all in time, but in the meantime, we live.