I listened to Jennifer Egan’s novel The Keep a couple years ago, and didn’t like it much; I didn’t believe in the characters or the plot, and therefore the whole thing got irritating. I’m glad I gave Jennifer Egan another chance, though, because I loved A Visit from the Goon Squad. This time, I believed in both the characters and plot, and I loved the book’s structure and its narrative energy. It’s one of those books that both tells a good story and leaves you feeling like you understand the world just a bit better.
The story is fairly complicated, not because it has a complex plot, but because it tells the stories of a lot of different people. We start with one of the main characters, Sasha, in a therapy session where she discusses her habit of stealing things, and then the next chapter introduces us to Bennie, a music industry executive who is visiting a band to see if his company should still represent them. Sasha is Bennie’s assistant and has been for many years. At one point, Bennie makes a pass at Sasha, but she wisely turns him down, and their relationship stays close in the way you can be close to someone you work with without really knowing much about that person at all.
From there, the chapters skip around in time and shift focus on to the people important in Sasha’s and Bennie’s lives. The two main characters never disappear, but they are sometimes on the sidelines as we learn about, say, the people Bennie went to high school with, Bennie’s wife and her life story, the story of the woman Bennie’s wife worked for, the story of the man Bennie’s high school friend ran away with, the story of a man Sasha had a brief fling with, and others. The point of view shifts from chapter to chapter, sometimes in third person, sometimes in first, and once in second. One chapter consists of a article draft written by one of the characters, and one long chapter consists of a journal created by one of the characters using PowerPoint.
If you had asked me before reading this book what I thought about the fictional possibilities of PowerPoint, I would have laughed in your face (politely, of course!). But Egan pulls it off, and this is one of the book’s most moving sections. There’s something about the small number of words on each page and the way those words are strategically arranged that makes some of the pages feel poetic and causes the emotions expressed to come through powerfully.
What it all adds up to is a picture of interlocking worlds, that of the music business in New York City, teenage life in California, suburban enclaves in Westchester, a safari in Africa, teenage prostitutes in Naples, Italy, all connected by people who know each other or have affected each other’s lives in some way. There is a lot going on in the book, but Egan keeps control of the material, partly through the connections amongst all the characters, but also through the energy and insight of the book as a whole. The moods of the different sections vary — there is humor, absurdity, darkness, hope, sadness — but there is a compassion for the characters and an excitement about life that runs through the whole. Egan manages to strike the right notes right up until the end.
I’m not sure what I think about the book’s title, though. We find out in the book that “the goon squad” refers to time, as in “time’s a goon,” which makes sense and fits the book exactly right. But I didn’t know what “goon squad” meant until I read the book, and up until that point I thought it was pretty silly. I hope the title doesn’t push anybody away from reading what really is a great book.