My personal assessment of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad changes each time I think back on it. Sometimes I think it’s a trifling thing, made up of airy stories that don’t really have any staying power beyond the act of reading them. Other times certain passages simply haunt me. I change my mind even further whenever I read other people’s reviews of it, especially since time and winning the Pulitzer seems to have turned some people into dismissing Goon Squad and its importance. But after hearing Slate’s Audio Book Club Podcast discussing the book I think that I can comfortably put a stake in the ground: I love this book.
The buzz surrounding this novel originally came from its stylistic inventiveness and subject matter. It is series of loosely interconnected short stories that track the lives of several individuals across space and time. Many of them, like Benny and Sasha, are heavily involved in the music industry while others are more tenuously so. People pop up and disappear all throughout, turning the entire novel into a treasure hunt of sorts as you try to discover what happens to characters that you care about. Time is the goon that the title refers to, a shadowy figure that roughs you up and beats you down when you least expect it.
Marcel Proust is cited as one of its thematic inspirations, and there is indeed a heavy blanket of nostalgia encoded in each story, even in the last one which is set in the future. Egan uses pauses as a weapon or a bridge, an idea that becomes overt in the famous Powerpoint story. My favorite one is set in the safari, where Egan uses the omniscient narrative POV to in the style of the 19th century classics. It is a stpru about a vacation in Africa which turns the narrative into a freewheeling camera, jumping from character to character, peeking into their futures and finding them eventually torn apart by the steady march of time. While there are some moments of humor and even great absurdity (the one that featured the PR expert and the genocidal despot is particularly hilarious), they generally act as a counterpoint the feeling of doom that hangs over most of the characters.
“I wanted to be too cool for this book but I really, really wasn’t,” I wrote over a month ago but it wasn’t the coolness that really bothered me. It’s the implication of sentimentality and buying into the brand of tragedy that Egan is trying to sell me. I still feel sad for these people despite knowing that they have created their own personal hells out of the illusions they have constructed around themselves and each other. I agree with the Slate podcast when it says the thing that Egan grapples with in this novel is the divide between hype and transcendence, which in many ways is a metacommentary on the kind of notoriety that Goon Squad has earned.
People go through life with their own agendas, their own attempts to overcome their own irrelevance, but there is still a layer of sadness over these small acts of self-interest. I’m not entirely certain that they all are deserving of my sympathy, but I feel it for them anyway.