Publication Date: 2010
(Review originally appeared in the Lancaster Sunday News on August 18th, 2013)
Though Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” might be considered experimental, Egan’s theme is ages old.
Time is the goon of the title, the real main character of the book. Time stalks through each chapter, wreaking his havoc.
The backdrop of the music industry serves to highlight this tension. Popular music, a creature born of a specific moment in history, quickly and continually passes into irrelevance. This becomes a perfect metaphor for our own existence, our own attempts to stay connected to the now.
The novel suggests that time can strip us of worth, meaning and livelihood, but only if we roll over for the goon. Only if we allow ourselves to be relegated to the vast basement of time, looking at old photographs, reading old letters.
The novel doesn’t condemn the past, but it does reject the notion that the past contains the best and worst of what we are.
Egan’s novel is simultaneously new and classic, befitting its theme. It may be another novel about time, but it’s not just the same old thing.
The book contains 13 “interlocking narratives,” each a self-contained vignette of crisis. Each chapter focuses on a different character or set of characters who are all related to one another in some way.
The central characters are Bennie Salazar, a record producer, and his assistant, Sasha, but this is misleading, as there are several chapters in which these characters don’t appear.
Also, time shifts from chapter to chapter, moving forward by a year or two, then plunging 20 years into the past, only to conclude in some unknown dystopic future, not too distant from our own.
These structural and stylistic abnormalities enhance the reading experience. It’s like reading several different novels within a single book.
Whether she’s using second person point of view or writing a chapter in PowerPoint, Egan’s prose remains rich and evocative. Her paragraphs continually build toward powerful last lines that catapult the reader forward. She manages to connect disparate ideas in surprising and fulfilling ways again and again.
As the book reaches its conclusion, you understand why this is a novel and not just a collection of connected short stories.