[25 August 2010]
Halfway through chapter three of Jennifer Egan’s knockout new novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, I started jotting down character names and relationships in the margins. At first, the connections were just the stuff of so much unrequited love: “Bennie – wants Alice; Alice – rich, wants Scotty; Rhea – narrator, loves Bennie; Jocelyn – bff, disappears w/ Lou; Lou – exec; Scotty – wants Jocelyn, eye spots”. This is all for just one chapter, mind you.
As I read deeper into the book, the notes became less predictable, the relationships more intricate: “Dolly/La Doll (Peale) – Steph’s boss from before, hired by the General for PR; Arc – The G’s HR Captain; The General – a genocidal dictator; Kitty Jackson – movie star, attacked by Jules (S’s brother)”. Eventually, they just got weird: “Lulu – D’s daughter, popular at school, visits G, becomes Bennie’s assistant and helps promote Scotty’s concert in the future”, the weirdness here deriving from that word “future”, which in this context refers to the capital “F” variety in which people travel via 6th Avenue skyscraper corridors and strollers are prohibited at public events because they inhibit evacuations.
Such is the sprawling nature of Egan’s book that your radar had better be finely tuned as you read. A picture on the mantle, the name of a band, even a hairpin—these things come back, and when they do, you had better be ready to recall everything that comes with them, not on punishment of being lost to the rest of the book if you can’t—this is not one of those puzzle novels that require you to fit every piece precisely—but instead because Egan’s feat here is formidable, and if you are investing the time anyway, so you might as well make a good faith effort to pick up everything she is putting down.
To its credit, A Visit from the Goon Squad eludes a concise summary. Certainly no character would lead a single-sentence synopsis. Several qualify as “main”, but none can be said to provide a consistent through-line, from A to Z, as it were, and indeed, Egan herself seems to have linearity and gaps on the mind. Sections are called “A” and “B”, a comeback record is called A to B (by a former member of the Conduits, no less), and one character flat out asks another, “I want to know what happened between A and B…A was when we were both in the band chasing the same girl. B is now”.
The answer to this question relies on two more letters from the alphabet, this time “X” and “O”, as in “There’s nothing you have that I don’t have! It’s all just X’s and O’s, and you can come by those a million different ways” (ital Egan’s). At the risk of sounding like a refrigerator magnet, the X’s and O’s could more grandly be called “life”. Life happens between A and B, not just to the two characters in question but to them all, to us all.
In “life” we have a subject that may be worthy of the scope of Egan’s work, but “life” isn’t too far removed from “time”, which may be a useful refinement as it directly leads to the book’s sledgehammer of a title. “Time’s a goon, right? Isn’t that the expression?” asks Bosco, the Johnny Thunders-like former guitarist of the Conduits, he who is about to drop the aforementioned A to B before embarking on a Suicide Tour, which he intends to document for reality TV. “I’ve never heard that”, replies Jules, a journalist who was recently released from prison for assaulting a Britney-like starlet (see the character cheat sheet above for more). “‘Time is a goon.’” “Would you disagree?” asks Bosco. “No”, says Jules.
I can’t say that I’m familiar with the phrase either, though I, like Jules, have a difficult time disputing its legitimacy, which may be why it takes hold. Some 20-plus years after its coining, the phrase comes up again, this time as Bennie urges his old friend Scotty onto the stage for a climactic concert at the Footprint, which, I presume, is the Future term for the area currently known as Ground Zero. Scotty is reluctant, and seeing as his sudden popularity is as manufactured as WMD’s in Iraq, he has good reason to be. Bennie insists. “Time’s a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?” Bennie asks. “The goon won”, says Scotty.
Any discussion of the book would do well to lead with this idea that the goon, or time, wins, though the point that notes that time usually does is well taken. (For some reason, I can’t escape the oft-quoted passage from Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms as I think about this book: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”)
Say instead, then that the book is about the toll that the goon exacts—reckless punks becoming careful mothers; lecherous producers becoming impotent invalids—but it does so in ways that avoid any of the types of themes you might expect: youth is not lost, maturity not gained. They aren’t bartered in those terms. The game is not as judgmental as all that, which may explain the Hemingway. It’s not personal; it just is.
Egan’s characters may succumb to the ravages of time, but Egan herself, in her role as author, niftily stays on top it. Early in the book, when the Future is farthest away, she nonetheless provides a glimpse of what it has in store with periodic flashes of omniscience that are disarming and brutal in their indifference. Like this, a scene in which Lou’s children dance together while on safari in 1973: “She takes hold of his hands. As they move together, Rolph feels his self-consciousness miraculously fade, as if he is growing up right there on the dance floor, becoming a boy who dances with girls like his sister. Charlie feels it, too. In fact, this particular memory is one she’ll return to again and again, for the rest of her life, long after Rolph has shot himself in the head in their father’s house at twenty-eight: her brother as boy, hair slicked flat, eyes sparkling, learning to dance”.
Did I say that such moments were merely “disarming”? I take that back. They’re more than that. They stop you cold. Long before he is identified by name, that goon called “time” reveals himself to be a real son of a bitch.
The style of the book can best be described as “postmodern”, a term I use hesitatingly on account of hating it so damn much. Still, I suppose it fits. I mean by it only that Egan employs a variety of different narrative devices to tell her story: some chapters are first person, some are third omniscient, some third limited, one is even in second, another is a heavily footnoted letter from Riker’s Island. The longest chapter takes the form of a PowerPoint presentation, which loses surprisingly little emotional impact considering that it relies on arrows and other visual cues to convey its part of the story.
This last point cannot be emphasized enough. The devices do not feel device-y. In fact, quite the opposite. They enhance the story rather than detract from it—by providing multiple points of view, by exploring evolving methods of communication. The net effect is the enlivening of a genre that, for all of its formal innovation, often leaves me cold.
A Visit from the Goon Squad is by no means a new release. The book came out in early June to a slew of positive reviews. I’ve been championing it to friends, only to have them respond, “Oh, right. Came out a while ago, right? The one with the PowerPoint”. OK. So it’s already been championed. That doesn’t mean I can’t lend my voice to the choir, which, hopefully will continue to grow louder and louder and louder still. A book like this deserves as much volume as we can muster.