A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Time is a Goon, a relentless unfeeling thug marching over  helpless waves of humanity. There is no mercy as Time is an entity without intelligence or thought. Time is the killer of all things living and beyond the living possesses the power to eventually obliterate the inanimate laying waste to everything:  rocks, desserts, oceans and the stars that have burnt themselves out to blackened honeycombed cold stones.  Time is a Goon, the impartial leveler taking mankind down to its lowest common denominator; death.

After such a melodramatic introduction I am obliged to quickly point out that, A Visit From the Goon Squad is written in a light hearted vein with many funny moments as its characters revisit the past trying to make sense of how their lives have veered away from their earliest hopes and dreams. The book is organized as a series of short stories that can each be read on their own but are all in some way connected to Bennie Salazar a rock music producer and promoter. We meet him in chapter two while a stream of unwanted memories is tormenting him. Among them is the memory of a spontaneous but unsolicited kiss he planted on the lips of a startled mother superior when he was trying to coax a group of singing nuns to sign a recording contract. He lost the contract and cannot forget the stupidity of such an impulsive act no more than he can go back in time and change his actions.  His distress imposes on him a sort of inertia that manifests itself as both a physical and an emotional impotence. He is taking a gold cure to uplift the libido while emotionally he tries but cannot reach out to his young son who is deeply troubled by the breakup of his parents’ marriage. What is the gold cure you ask? It is a cure meant to raise an unresponsive libido by way of ingesting real gold flakes. Sound flakey? …Of course it is! Bennie will stir a few flakes of real gold into his coffee and after drinking it stare at his lovely assistant’s cleavage just to see if the cure is working.

The cover of my copy of A Visit from the Goon Squad bears the stamp of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for fiction although in my humble opinion this is not a work in the same league as that of Carol Shields or Saul Bellow but nonetheless it possess a readability and a charm that carried me along for an enjoyable ride. The inspiration for the book, according to the author had two sources, the first being Marcel Proust’s immense literary creation The Rembrance of Things Past and the second influence is the TV series “The Sopranos”. It is hard for me to judge the influence of Proust as I only got as far as Le Côté de Guermantes Part II. (I am waiting to read the whole thing in some year when I have a long lazy summer off with lots of leisure which may not be until I reach a very old age) but I have read enough to understand that Proust was trying to make sense of time’s imposition on our brief lives especially the lives of artists and how memory intermingles with the present and flips back and forth in our heads between present and past as it does with Bennie and all the other characters in this book. Bennie does not want to remember his mistakes and his lost opportunities and how he may have failed his son and his marriage but these memories are part of the Goon Squad and they won’t be stopped. Memories can be triggered by a brush with a familiar object or an encounter with an old acquaintance and as long as we possess even a single conscious brain cell, memories insist on crowding the present even when they are most painful. As for the Sopranos the influence is suggested in the bending of morality for the love of children or partners or ones self-love. As an example, in one hilarious story a disgraced publicist is trying to make a living by softening the public image of a notorious military murderer/dictator  (I can’t explain why such a dark topic can be funny you will have to read the chapter for yourself).

The book has been praised for some creative innovations such as the chapter that is composed entirely as a Power Point presentation. Is this innovative? It certainly adds variety to the narrative but I am not sure it is something new under the sun. Consider that in Pride and Prejudice chapter III, Jane Austin inserts a letter from Mr. Darcy to Miss Elizabeth; is this not a device similar to the Power Point the letter being a principal medium of communication in the author’s time? I also remember somewhere back in my distant adolescence reading the hilarious Up the Down Stair Case also praised for its innovation being composed entirely of school memos and notes including the direction from the principal to the teaching staff to make sure students did not go up the down staircase. A hundred years from now the Power Point will not exist and if A Visit From the Goon Squad is still being published at that future date it will have to include a footnote to explain exactly what the Power Point presentation was.

Maybe I am being a bit picky in singling out the so called innovative Power Point chapter but sometimes reviewers place emphasis on the trivial and miss what is really good about the book they are reviewing. To my mind the genius of this book is the way every character’s story is so brilliantly interconnected; each story is projected onto the canvas of the blank page like so many individual satellites and even though events are scattered throughout the present the past and even in the last chapter events occur in a slightly dystopian future each character’s history, that is to say each satellite, is finally settled satisfactorily in its own docking station having arrived where it rightfully should be despite the bullying tactics of the Goon Squad.

I will give this A Visit from the Goon Squad many stars because it is written so cleverly without showing off. I wish I could write like Jennifer Egan.

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6 thoughts on “A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

  1. I have been curious about this book for a long time; had no idea what it is about and never got around to looking it up. I’m so glad to see your review and I will put this on my TR list! (I agree with you about the power point presentation ;-))

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  2. this has sat on my shelf for about two years since I still can’t make up my mind whether I will like it. Your ref to the Sopranos as an influence made me think no, I will not want to read this since I didn’t care for that series at all. But then I read on and the interconnected thing piqued my interest. So I am left still undecided!

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    1. Hmmmm, I understand what you are saying especially since Jennifer Egan mentions both Proust and the Sopranos as being influences… a bit of an odd combination. I had hesitated reading the book as well not because of the Sopranos but because it is set in the world of the rock/pop recording industry which is so far removed from my world it might as well be another planet. However it was the characters that propelled the stories while the recording industry was the sand box Jennifer Egan created so that her characters would have a place to play. As a sugestion, as these are individual short stories blended into a novel you could read the first two in one sitting and decide whether you wanted to read on and not feel as if you had wasted your time. All the stories are funny in a quirky sort of way.

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