Title: A Visit From the Goon Squad
Author: Jennifer Egan
ISBN 13: 9780307477477
Publisher’s Blurb: Bennie is an aging former punk rocker and record executive. Sasha is the passionate, troubled young woman he employs. Here Jennifer Egan brilliantly reveals their pasts, along with the inner lives of a host of other characters whose paths intersect with theirs. With music pulsing on every page, A Visit from the Goon Squad is a startling, exhilarating novel of self-destruction and redemption.
Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad is like no other book I’ve ever read. A work of sheer brilliance, difficult to describe. Thirteen stories loosely bound together by a group of characters with a connection to record producer Bennie Salazar. Told from different perspectives, different times, and non-linearly. If someone had tried to explain it to me, I probably would have said, “sounds interesting but I have other things to read.” But when mentor M. Todd Gallowglas said it was his favorite book, and we were going to spend November working with it, I dug right in. Although I was skeptical about the all month part.
The first time through, I was so enthralled I read it all in one sitting. The second time took almost two weeks and required a spreadsheet and a text document for over 30 pages of notes. Before the end of November, there may be a third reading because I still have a list of topics I want to explore.
A Visit From the Goon Squad is multi-layered and rich. No real true main character, no real true plot, each story stands alone. Goon Squad is the literal meaning of “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
The big theme is Time. It’s really a character in itself and overshadows every part of this book. “Time’s a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?” (p. 332) Bennie says this to an old punk rocker as he’s being cajoled to go on stage. Time’s a goon, it beats up on all of us. No matter how hard we try to push back, time always wins. The stories in A Visit from the Goon Squad take us through the journey of how time has beaten up on all the characters, none of them come out of the fight well. It’s a reminder that none of us ever will.
Telling the stories out of chronological order makes for a much richer experience. There are little moments of “aha!” as the pieces drop into place. Clues in one story relate directly to another providing a deeper insight to a character or an incident. I agree with Egan’s assessment that ordering the stories in chronological order would have fallen flat and not had the emotional punch the non-chronological order does.
Music, and the music business is another major theme. Bennie’s life revolves around punk music, so too the other characters in A Visit From the Goon Squad, in some way. We meet Sasha, Bennie’s assistant for twelve years, in the first story “Found Objects,” while on a date with Alex, who figures prominently in the last story, “Pure Language.”
Scotty Haussmann was a high school mate of Bennie’s in a punk band named the Flaming Dildos. A name so naturally perfect for punk bands in the late 70s, and still deliciously subversive now. A warning, don’t look it up on the internet, it will render scars.
Scotty appears in a total of three stories, and so it goes. Each character teasingly drawn out across time and geography, their back stories filled in as we are shuttled through the drama. But not all details are revealed, just enough to help us fill in the gaps and make us wonder.
The PowerPoint presentation called “Great Rock and Roll Pauses,” written by Sasha’s twelve-year-old daughter, Alison, gives insight to Sasha and her life in the desert with her husband, and her family, years after Bennie and New York City
Each character is problematic, and broken in search of redemption with a nostalgic look back to the “better” days. Hardest for me were Lou Kline, Bennie’s mentor in the record business, and Bennie’s brother-in-law, Jules Jones.
Stereotypically, Lou’s position in the music business places him in the realm of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. He preys on younger women. High school aged Jocelyn’s story is told through Rhea’s voice, both friends of Bennie. In “As if I Care,” Rhea relates details which take the story from stereotype to a more full understanding of society’s (with Lou as proxy) view of young women. These details lead to Jocelyn’s destruction and attempt to push back at the goon. Her story is important and deserves the recognition that while Jocelyn’s story is not unusual, there’s nothing normal about it. Nor should it ever be thought normal.
Jules Jones’ story is told in “40-Minute Lunch.” His desire to be young again, to have what starlet Kitty Jackson has at age nineteen leads to sexual assault. Which sends Kitty on her own destructive route and her chance at redemption in “Selling the General.” After a few years in prison, Jules finds his own redemption in “A to B.”
The connective tissue of character and story are what makes A Visit From the Goon Squad so fascinating. Egan is one of the most talented writers I’ve read, and has said in interviews that she likes to try something different with each new work. (See her story in the New Yorker titled “Black Box,” as an example.)
Goon Squad taught me a new way of reading and critical writing, making it a pivotal book in my own work. Reading it is more than a worthwhile adventure, it’s a shining example of what good storytelling can be.