Jennifer Egan’s latest book, A Visit from the Goon Squad, is a book written for the age of blog posts and Facebook. It imitates the interconnectedness of Facebook and the brevity of blog posts by playing with structure, plot, character, and time. Like Facebook, it does not center around one story, or even one character. A Visit from the Goon Squad has many. It jumps between times, characters, and storylines, moving through tangents and chapters to provide a new innovative way of storytelling. Each chapter is told by a different character, and each episode manages to explore its own central character while also deepening your understanding of all the other characters.
Despite their randomness, all the stories share a common thread. Each character is either directly or indirectly involved with the rock music industry. Bennie Salazar, one of the more frequently recurring characters, is in one chapter a 1970s punk rock teenager trying to get a gig, and in the next he is a failing music producer. Lou, the older, coke-snorting music executive is picking up teenage girls at Bennie’s punk show in one chapter and dying in the next. Sasha, Bennie’s kleptomaniac secretary has a bad date with a boy who in another chapter becomes a musician. Their lives weave together in an intricate web, coming together and then unraveling as the characters move in and out of each others’ lives.
Yet their strands are all held together by their love of music. The overarching narrative follows their passion for music from Bennie’s punk years in the early 70s to its demise in the 2000s and finally it’s inexplicable redemption in the vaguely dated future. The characters are constantly either becoming musicians, supporting musicians, or mourning musicians, and every chapter seems intricately connected by this common theme.
Egan not only plays with time, character, and story, but also plays with the novel’s physical structure. One chapter is written entirely in PowerPoint slides. In another chapter, text messages take on a poetic quality and act as mini haiku. Even the book itself is structured like a CD or an old mix tape: the chapters are titled like songs, and categorized as either A or B sides. This mixture of nostalgia and hope, past and future, echoes the plot structure and the characters’ own feelings about music, relationships and their place in the world.
This National Book Circle Winner is one of the most amazing books I’ve read this year. Innovative and interesting, A Visit from the Goon Squad is the book of our present, imitative of and in response to our short attention spans and increasingly interconnected society.
Time taken: 8 hours
Worth it? Yes