I just finished Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. I am not sure what to make of the book. It’s a series of sketches of various people in and around the music industry at various times of their lives. The book is not like a traditional novel with a neat narrative arc, character development or even an identifiable plot. And yet it is not exactly a set of linked stories, either. It’s written in the first, second, and third person points of view and sometimes it’s even tough to know who is narrating. Yet I liked it.
The book opens with a 30ish kleptomaniac named Sasha. She is in a public bathroom and a woman on the toilet has left her purse open by the sinks. Sasha peeks in and spots her wallet. Like a kid drawn to free candy, Sasha cannot resist stealing the wallet.
All of the vignettes spin from there. Readers meet Sasha’s boss, the music executive Bennie Salazar, and then the book travels back in time to San Francisco, when Salazar and his friends had a punk music band. We meet different characters from the band at different points in their lives, at times when they are successful and times they are not.
One-78 page section is devoted to a PowerPoint presentation put together by Sasha’s 12-year old daughter. Egan has gotten a lot of press for including this in the book and one friend of mine said she thought A Visit from the Good Squad will be taught in MFA programs from years to come.
The book, with its nonlinear and decidedly unchronological sequences, paints a picture of how people evolve over time.
Meredith Maran put it well in Salon:
“Like strands of raffia wrapped around a bursting-at-the-seams scrapbook, the novel is loosely bound by time, the dread "goon squad" of the title. Teenagers lacerate their parents’ hypocrisies (Sasha’s daughter is allotted 78 pages for her PowerPoint presentation detailing her mother’s annoying habits), then reappear as parents of their own snarling kids. Parents are exposed as graying, thickening, incurably immature iterations of their teenage selves. Young rock stars grow old and irrelevant, then hip again: "Two generations of war and surveillance had left people craving the avatar of their own unease in the form of a lone, unsteady man on a slide guitar." Time gets us all, Egan reminds us, tossing us into the quicksand pit of the past, hurling us over the cliff of the future, playing hard to get — and making pleasure hard to get — in the now.”