A Visit from the Goon Squad
By Jennifer Egan
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, June 2010, 288 pp., $25.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Jessica Jernigan
There are so many ways to read A Visit from the Goon Squad—or maybe it’s more accurate to say there are so many ways to remember it. Maybe both statements are equally true. Maybe they mean the same thing.
An example: it’s quite possible to read this book and remember it as the story of Bennie Salazar, a record producer, but the reader who remembers it thus may be shocked to discover, upon a second reading, that just one chapter is told from Bennie’s point of view.
This is not to say that Bennie is not a central character. He is an essential component of Jennifer Egan’s inventive, exhilarating novel. Bennie is memorable and vital to the reader because he is memorable and vital to many of the characters who populate this book. He is a person constructed, mostly, from the impressions and recollections of others.
Bennie first appears as the former boss of another character, Sasha, and it’s just as easy to remember the novel as Sasha’s story as it is to remember it as Bennie’s. It’s slightly trickier, however, to determine what, exactly, Sasha’s story is—and this ambiguity is another key feature of Egan’s project.
The novel begins in the bathroom of a hotel bar, where Sasha lifts a wallet from another woman’s purse. Soon it becomes clear that Sasha is actually recounting this theft to her psychiatrist, but the narrative is not firmly attached to any single time and place. Sasha is in her therapist’s office but, as she tells him about stealing the wallet, she returns to the scene of her crime. Sasha is both the woman acting and the woman remembering the action and, as she remembers the action, she is also conscious of the fact that she and her therapist are, together, not just reviewing her history but revising the story of her life. They are examining her past in order to shape her future, but the past Sasha narrates from the couch is already heavily edited. Like any analysand, Sasha is constantly choosing which answer to give: the one she thinks her therapist wants to hear? The one that means she’s getting better? The truth? Which truth?
The idea that the self is a construction—that it is contingent, rather than essential—may seem like a fancy postmodern innovation, but, in Egan’s hands, it’s revealed as a simple fact of everyday experience. Time is the only certainty in this novel: it’s not stable, but it is inexorable. Time’s effect on Egan’s characters—and, by extension, on all of us—emerges as one of Egan’s central concerns. Are we our present or our past? Are we the sum of our own thoughts and feelings, or are we what other people perceive us to be? Egan answers these questions and, in doing so, she collapses the dichotomies that these questions suggest. In the space of a few pages, Egan deftly demonstrates that we are all of these things, and she spends the rest of the novel exploring the ramifications of that discovery.
Time moves forward, but the past is never really over. Let us return our attention to Bennie, who is not just shaped by his past: he is haunted by it. Mortifying moments rush into his present with the destructive force of poltergeists. Like Sasha, Bennie is working with a therapist, and his has instructed him to exorcise these humiliations by reducing them to a word or two and setting them down on paper. The result of this practice is not, however, what Dr. Beet must have intended: when Sasha finds Bennie’s list, she reads it aloud, reducing his life story to a scribbled series of catastrophes.
But, suddenly, these terrors really are defeated—not cast out, but transformed. For Sasha, Bennie is not a shame-filled wreck, but a legend, the founder of an iconic punk record label and the producer who discovered the Conduits. For her, Bennie’s catalogue of fiascos is a list of excellent song titles. Sasha saves Bennie—for a moment, at least—by turning him into the man she believes him to be.
Bennie and Sasha’s ontological instability should be utterly recognizable to just about anyone who encounters it on the page, and it’s a testament to Egan’s powers as a writer that she makes it at once horrifying, redemptive, and thoroughly mundane. Nevertheless, only the most hardened existentialist is willing to give up the dream of an essential self. Sure, we might acknowledge that we behave differently at home than we do at work, that our kids don’t perceive us in the same way that our friends do—but somewhere amidst our jumble of identities there is a real self, a true self, right?
Egan, it turns out, recognizes this desire for authenticity, and she sympathizes. (Compassion is, in fact, one of Egan’s greatest strengths as an author.) Rhea, a friend of Bennie’s who narrates a chapter from the midst of their shared punk-rock adolescence wonders “When does a fake Mohawk end up being a real Mohawk? Who decides? How do you know if it’s happened?” The question is framed in poignantly teenagerish terms, but the anxiety that produces it never really goes away. Certainly, Bennie’s transition from independent provocateur to powerful record executive is not an easy one. When he reflects upon the evolution of the music business and his place in it, Bennie is really agonizing about his own fall from punk to poseur.
Of course, Bennie’s experience is also simply one variation—and a fairly common one—of the journey from youth to middle age. Bennie’s story is simply a story about the passage of time, and in this story, the Eden of authenticity is always—irretrievably—in the past.
“Time’s a goon, right?” Bosco, the onetime guitarist for Bennie’s biggest success, asks this rhetorical question as he’s contemplating a solo tour that’s not a comeback but rather a suicide mission. While Bosco is incorrect in thinking that this is a well-known expression at the moment he utters it, his misconception becomes a sort of truth when Bennie repeats it years later. (A dry sense of humor and a nimble way with irony are among Egan’s other virtues.) In this formulation, time is the enemy, the force that eats away at our lives and our dreams of what our lives might be, and the novel’s title might seem to suggest that time is the villain in the story. But Egan’s project is more subtle than that. She never denies time’s power, but neither does she assign that power a moral value.
In fact, even Bennie’s repetition of Bosco’s ersatz adage is slightly disingenuous. He’s talking to his old friend Scotty, and while Scotty has certainly experienced decades of steady and incontrovertible decline, Bennie has been granted a second life. He has emerged from the wreckage of his first marriage and his tortuous relationship with his son. He has a new wife—much younger than he, naturally, and incredibly hot—and a baby daughter. Having decided that his position as a music executive was untenable, he embarked on a third career—one in which he continues to make compromises, but on his own terms. Time has been incredibly kind to Bennie.
Sasha is also graced by the passage of time. Indeed, Egan gives most of her characters a chance to reinvent themselves, and, while she’s at it, she reinvents the novel.
Like an old 45, A Visit from the Goon Squad is divided into two parts. The first half of the novel—the A-side, as it were—is composed of chapters written from a variety of viewpoints. The cast Egan musters is unusually diverse, and she does not restrict herself to presenting episodes in chronological order, but the internal structure of each chapter is fairly conventional. Just as the A-side of the single is the song with enough popular appeal to make it into the top forty, these stories would not be out of place in an anthology or the fiction section of a magazine with decent circulation numbers.
The B-side, though, is the place for experimentation—for studio outtakes, for tracks too weird for the album, for musical in-jokes that only real fans will appreciate. Egan takes some breathtaking risks in the second half of her novel, in matters of both form and content, and even when she is subtle, she produces some startling effects.
The first chapter in this section is utterly straightforward in its narrative shape, but it presents a challenge, nevertheless. It’s told from the point of view of Bennie’s first wife, and it’s something of a shock—possibly even a gentle rebuke—when a real person emerges to replace the cartoon ex sketched by Bennie in the novel’s opening chapter. We are required to revise our notion of Bennie again, and to wonder what it means that awkward social encounters continue to torture him decades after they occurred, yet the various ways in which he betrayed his wife do not figure prominently in his mental universe.
In the next chapter, Egan presents a disgraced publicist compelled by need to reform the reputation of a genocidal dictator. Again, the author eschews formal invention in favor of traditional storytelling technique, but she dares to push the reader to the very edge of credulity, managing to suggest that, if any element of her tale is unbelievable, it’s our society, not Egan’s depiction of it.
The most adventurous piece of this novel is “12 Great Rock and Roll Pauses by Alison Blake.” Egan generated quite a bit of curiosity by composing this chapter in PowerPoint. The ubiquitous office-presentation software is much maligned for the way it compels users to reduce complex information to a facile series of sentence fragments, but Egan makes it sing. The elisions necessitated by the form become poignant, as these silences echo the inability to communicate that infects the relationships limned in this chapter. What looks, at first, like a stunt becomes, instead, a signal moment in the evolution of storytelling.
Memory persists, but time moves forward, and Egan’s narrative takes the reader a decade into the future. The civilization she presents is slightly scary, and not just because low-grade terror has become everyday political reality. Pop music is pitched at a preverbal level, in order to attract toddlers who shop for themselves on handheld devices. Young adults used to the abbreviations of texting are incapable of sustained speech. Egan offers a vision of the future that’s just a shade darker than the way we live now, and it’s this verisimilitude that makes it so disconcerting.
But Egan is too humane an author to leave us without hope. Having dismantled the myth of the past as paradise, Egan doesn’t turn the future into hell. Egan’s characters continue to do what people have always done. They live their lives and they tell their stories, the latter being, as ever, a necessary element of the former.
Jessica Jernigan is a writer and student living in Mount Pleasant, Michigan. You can find her online at jessicajernigan.com.