A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Jennifer Egan’s latest novel consists of a series of tangentially linked chapters concerning that most pressing of baby boomer preoccupations: time. The lynchpin is Bennie Salazar, an untalented musician who mines his love of music through the record producing business. We leap back and forth through time, meeting Bennie’s friends, girlfriends, publicists – the character count is as vast as it is diverse – and each of their stories offers another radial aspect of how nothing we do is an accurate prospectus of our futures, and that we all look around at certain points and wonder how the hell did I end up like this?
Though the book is deliberately jagged in structure, there is a tenderness in the treatment of all the character’s lives that binds the disparate strands together. A beautiful example is the story of a young man, drunk and high and desperately unhappy, who dives into the toxic flotsam of New York’s East River in a final and devastating act of self-loathing and futility. The empathy Egan brings to the youth in Goon Squad allows for an even more brutal dissection of the old. But their accumulated impatience and anger and bitterness is tempered by her understanding of the primal human urge to keep going, no matter how much our bodies deteriorate, our relationships implode, our businesses rise and fall, and our options so rapidly evaporate.
Goon Squad ends with a leap into the future, extrapolating from current trends to a world of relentless individual marketing. But it nostalgic too, checking in on our quest for authenticity. It is a clever novel – one chapter is a PowerPoint presentation – but not an exercise in gimmickry. The PowerPoint is the work of a young girl, and builds a picture of her family so startlingly real and comprehending of family dynamics that I was moved to tears. Not every chapter reaches these heights, but the peaks are upthrusts of originality and greatness. A Visit From the Goon Squad is easily the best novel I read last year. Read it: it’s a must.
Robbie Egan is manager of Readings Carlton