A Visit from the Goon Squad is a bestselling, Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Jennifer Egan. Egan was raised in San Francisco, and attended the University of Pennsylvania and later St. John’s College, Cambridge. Her other works include the novels The Keep, Invisible Circus, and Look at Me, as well as the short story collection Emerald City. Her journalism work also frequently appears in The New York Times magazine.
As a book, A Visit From the Goon Squad is distinctive because it really has no single protagonist. Each of the 13 chapters—one of which is told through a PowerPoint presentation—revolves around the life of a different character, in places from Italy to New York City to Africa, and in times from the past to the present to the future. Mostly, the characters are related to the lives of Bennie, an aging rock music record executive, and Sasha, his assistant, in one way or another. This is a polyphonic book, with multiple voices doing the storytelling.
Of all the characters in this story, Dolly is probably one of my favourites. Once a highly successful publicist known as La Doll, she met her downfall at an infamous party she threw at the acme of her career. Her guests were badly burned and as the catastrophe elapsed, Dolly was too shocked to move or call for help yet by chance remained unscathed. Her guests noticed this, and interpreted her response to their cries as reflective of her intention to harm them and watch them suffer. Dolly spends time in jail, and when she is released finds herself shrouded in disgrace. With a daughter to bring up she desperately needs to salvage her career, and so, is forced to work for a General from another country who is, for lack of a better explanation, a dictator promulgating genocide. Dolly works with the General and his team to promote his innocence in novel ways, like by accessorizing him with a fluffy blue hat and by linking him with a Hollywood actress!
Another character that really stands out was Bosco, a former member of the band The Conduits who is now inflicted with cancer, obesity, and aging in general. Bosco contacts Stephanie, his publicist (who used to work for La Doll and is Bennie’s ex-wife) and tells her that he wants to do a “suicide tour”. He feels that his death is approaching, and wants to tour and perform in his decrepit condition. He says he knows that the tour will probably kill him, and even goes as far as to say that he would like to die on stage, turning the act of dying into an art. When Stephanie expresses her distaste for the idea and tries to talk him out of it, Bosco says something that I think accurately sums up what all the characters from the story are struggling with- “Time’s a goon, right?” Yes, yes it is. Perhaps the biggest goon of all, simply because no one knows it’s there until it’s too late. As Jennifer Egan said in an interview with The Daily Beast, “Time is the stealth goon, the one you ignore because you are so busy worrying about the goon right in front of you.”
The only chapter where you might feel somewhat disconnected with was the chapter that used PowerPoint slides for narration. The chapter focused on Sasha’s family life with her husband Drew, daughter Alison, and son Lincoln. Lincoln, who is slightly autistic, is obsessed with pauses in music, ranging in length from a few seconds to a few minutes. The chapter features several intricate graphs analyzing pauses from certain songs and their effects, like “song excellence” and “haunting power”. I really couldn’t bring myself to care about the pauses, and I imagine most people will feel the same. Yet the fresh modes of narration and presentation kept me going and saved me from skipping to the next chapter. But really, how does Jennifer Egan come up with such unique, creative plot ideas? Criminals in fluffy hats winning over the world? Suicide tours, performing the act of death? I envy the lady’s imagination and way of thinking; it must be wonderful inside her head! Oh, if only I could read minds.
Because of its unique structure, there has been much discussion about how this book should be classified. Some critics feel it is a novel, whereas others believe it is a short story collection. In an interview with Laura Miller, Jennifer Egan once said that she looked at it as a novel. The main theme of this book is time–its effects and its journeys, how it flies past us and how the past affects us. Although each chapter can be read as a short story in itself, the book isn’t about a few select characters, but rather about people in general.
With fresh, funny writing, Jennifer Egan does an excellent job of hitting home on the book’s main theme. This book leaves the reader wanting more and gives the reader a lot to think about. Each reader will be able to connect well with at least one character or chapter—time is a goon we all have to face, whether we like it or not. And time will always prevail over us, whether we fight it or not. The book, somehow, captures the raw essence of humanity, and is definitely a worthwhile read.
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