368 pages, Corsair
Review by Pat Black
“Time’s a goon, right?” Not half.
Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad is a strange journey through interconnected lives, jumping around between past, present and future. Music is a theme, but the backbeat, as Mr Morrison said, is difficult and hard to master. It is an awkward book to review because it doesn’t stick to any one character, plotline, theme or timeframe. But it is, happily, a very easy and rewarding book to read.
It’s a Pulitzer Prize winner, one that restored my faith in the award. The previous Pulitzer winner I read was Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, a book so well written, and yet so innately, horrifically bad it prompted some basic philosophical questions, like “Why is life so awful?” and “Writing: why do I bother?”
A Visit From The Goon Squad is a collection of short stories with lots of interconnected characters. These characters flit in and out of each other’s histories, at different times and stages of life. If there’s a lynchpin, it is New York record label executive Bennie Salazar. New York itself is the main focus of the novel’s events, although the narrative does take wee holidays in Africa, Italy and an unnamed Central American former dictatorship.
Connected to Bennie are Sasha the recovering kleptomaniac, Lou, the sleazy music industry mogul – Bennie’s mentor – Dolly the PR supremo, Jocelyn the teenage punk and a host of other characters. They inhabit, enhance and inhibit each other’s lives.
To paraphrase Frank Zappa, time would be a boring jumble of dates and deadlines if we didn’t have music to decorate it with. The physics of sound and its interaction with time is a distant notion here, though, compared with musical fashions and the ways fame can surge and retreat, often leaving people high and dry. Nothing stays rock n’ roll forever. Fashions and technologies change, and what seems hip and stylish can be old hat and snigger-worthy soon after… before suddenly lurching back into fashion again.
This was probably a metaphor for the other driving themes of the book: regret, loss and entropy. Everyone in this book is lamenting something or someone. Bennie goes from aspiring bass player to record label mogul, but when we meet him he’s more or less impotent, reduced to sprinkling gold flakes in his coffee as a snake oil remedy for his missing libido. Good looking people get old and ugly in a hurry; aspiring musicians like Rhea and Jocelyn, in their ripped T-shirts, safety pins and CBGBs punk scene make-up, miss out on their love life targets, and end up having hugely differing fortunes – and indirectly affecting the lives of those who adore them, unrequited. Lou the record company boss treats people like toilet paper, but ends up with his own horror to deal with, seeded in the past, flowering in the future. Scotty the guitar player ends up working as a janitor, fishing direct from the Hudson, near-psychotic and twisted with jealousy over the success of his ex-bandmate Bennie in his 34th floor Manhattan office. Another musician famous for his Angus Young-style stage presence turns into a fat, cancer-ridden burnout. And so on.
Even after such lows, people can rise again – but the book makes it clear that this is only temporary. Everyone’s time in the sun is short, Egan is saying. Everyone has regrets – you, your partner, your children, the rich friends you envy, rock stars, models, kings, popes, whoever. It’s maybe the one experience we can all share.
And everyone has a missing space in their lives. Sasha the klepto struggles to get over the lack of the Twin Towers on the Manhattan skyline, and that’s a great big metaphor for the losses people spend their whole lives trying to recoup, in this book and in reality.
Goon Squad has a very curious, although well put-together section in which a child tells a story through the use of graphs, pie charts, grids and Venn Diagrams, a means of understanding an autistic sibling and a damned good idea well-executed. It’s another example of the many great stories in this book, an absorbing, addictive piece of work which will raise your spirits, even as you consider some very bleak facts of life.
I wouldn’t recommend reading it on the last day of your holiday. But sometimes a comedown is no bad thing.