Visit From the Goon Squad (Part 1)

This is the first of two posts about Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize winning work- Visit From the Goon Squad:

Meet Sasha (from whose vantage we see the first chapter): she’s a 30-something kleptomaniac formerly employed by music industry executive Bennie Salazar. Now (2nd chapter) meet Bennie, divorced, sold-out to a mainstream label, his best days behind him, trying to find in music the spark of youth of his high-school band (The Flaming Dildos). Flash back to meet Rhea (3rd chapter, first-person), the overly-freckled girl who loves high-school Bennie (who in turn loves rich Alice, who loves Dildos lead-singer Scotty (6th), who loves Jocelyn (5th), who loves Lou, a 40-something record executive who will turn out to one day be Benny’s mentor). Maybe twenty-five or so years later Lou dies, largely alone, mostly forgotten. Even as he rises towards death he tries to pull himself back to a youth misremembered, clutching to two 40-something women, one of whom he fucked while she was a high-schooler (see above). She thinks he ruined her life. He doesn’t want to remember that. He just wants to be young. That’s all he ever wanted.

Sorry, you probably think I’m spoiling the book for you. I’m not; I swear. A Visit From the Goon Squad doesn’t have a plot as such: Egan takes Proust for her epigrapher, then jumps back and forth in time, eschewing the common conceit of suspense by often mentioning, as an aside, the outlined future of her characters. Here’s an example:

“The warrior smiles at Charlie…. Thirty-five years from now, in 2008, this warrior will be caught in the tribal violence between Kikuyu and the Luo and will die in a fire. He’ll have had four wives and sixty-three grandchildren by then, one of whom, a boy named Joe, will inherit his lalema: the iron hunting dagger in a leather scabbard now hanging at his side. Joe will go to college at Columbia and study engineering, becoming an expert in visual robotic technology that detects the slightest hint of irregular movement (the legacy of a childhood spent scanning the grass for lions)….”

The goon squad of the title is time. Every character in the book dies, if not on-screen, then certainly off, at least eventually (we don’t see most of them, but we know where they’re heading).  I’d apologize for ruining the surprise, but of course that’s the point: every character in every book dies (if only off-screen), because every person dies. The goon squad’s visits remind us that our whole, piteous lives must be measured against the vast vacuum in which they take place. Many (most?) of Egan’s characters try to scrabble back up the vine of their memory, hoping to climb to a moment of youth too remote for the abyss below to be visible. They never succeed.

Nobodies and failures populate the novel. Even those outwardly-blessed by success – Bennie, Lou, rock-star Bosco of the Conduits, publicist La Doll (or, by the time we get to know her, Dolly) – have been beaten up and left disfigured by time. Unfortunately, it can all get a bit numbing after a while: Egan structures her book as a series of swirling viewpoints, surrounding two or maybe three lives (Bennie, Sasha, and, to some extent, Lou). Each chapter takes up a different character’s point-of-view. The book spins forward and backward throughout time but has perhaps a general trend-line stretching from Bennie’s teen years in the early 80s towards a future maybe ten-fifteen years distant from our own.

The lack of structure (is the book a novel or collection of related short stories?) combined with the thematic similarity of the characters and their stories, can make Goon Squad feel at times a bit more authorial hammer than writerly laser. Egan’s commitment to portraying a host of characters is impressive. Her 274-page book peeks into the interior life of more than a dozen characters, nearly as many (by my guesstimate) as Tolstoy’s 1350-page War and Peace, not a book known for its narrow focus. That’s a formidable task for any writer to undertake, and she deserves credit for her bravery. Moreover, her characters, male and female, are sturdily-drawn and fairly convincing. She has a particular faculty with teenagers and children, whose voices often illuminate the best parts of the novel, including a stunningly good PowerPoint diary drawn up by a 12-year old of the future. It brings the book to an emotional crescendo and was, to me, by far the most powerful thing in it.

And yet, looking back on the book, I have to say that for me its expansive gaze may have ended up as a weakness and not strength. Peered back at from a distance, the stories of all of these sad people start to blend together. You lose their individuation in the mist of their common regret and loss. Oh, of course you remember that one’s a journalist, another a publicist, a third the freelance publicist turned dissatisfied-housewife, a fourth’s a legal secretary-turned stay-at-home dad. And yet, what really makes these people individuals rather than clones of one another? Are they just melancholy dolls differentiated through their genders, ages, and background stories (this one born rich, this one poor, that one did coke, the other heroin)? The answer to that last question is probably no: many of the characters do stick with you and feel memorable. At the same time, though, because the emotional range of the novel is so limited (I can’t remember a single moment of real joy in the whole book), it’s easy to let the Goon Squad’s individuation recede into a murky fog. Add to this the fact that Egan’s characters, stared at individually, are well-done, a competent, decent job, but that she only rarely if ever plumbed the level of psychological depth that some of the greats are capable of: your Tolstoys, Updikes, and Franzens, each of whom can at times break through an outer shell of character that Egan rarely pierces into a vast interior life of which we see here only a glimpse. When you combine the commonality of Goon Squad circumstances, they become a people-cloud rather than a set of individuals.

That all said, Goon Squad was a book I enjoyed less while reading it than I do as I recount it. One reason might just be that it’s a generally pretty depressing book. Such characters as find happiness do so off-screen and in ways that suggest the hard-work of a meaningful life following one’s prosaic passions: one character becomes a dairy farmer, another sells cheese, a third goes back to get her PHD at 45 and venture out into the African wild for decades hence. The difficulties of stolid motherhood get special mention as particularly valuable. These are all recounted quickly, and the bulk of the book is devoted to sadness. This is not a flaw, just a reason that I may not have enjoyed the experience of reading it as much at the time as I do in retrospect. Like I said, not much joy here.

I’ll also say, and perhaps this is harsh, that I found Egan to be a very good writer, but just not a prose stylist on the same level as a Nabokov or Diaz or Roth. That’s admittedly an extremely high bar to judge her against, but reading it tended to have fewer “Wow” moments than some other books I’ve loved. That said, one test of a work’s worth is whether it makes you feel something and for how long. Do you just forget the book after you read it? By that standard, I’m finding Goon Squad to be a work that makes an impression on me, if not forever (because what lasts forever?) then at least for a worthy stretch of time.

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