Literary Things: A Visit From the Goon Squad

I think it’s important that you and I are confounded. We often turn to entertainment to cope and escape, but that’s a problem when it’s too easy to digest. We’re more rewarded when we reject passivity and grapple with something that tells us truth. Everything else is just plausible drama, and that, friends, comprises the empty calories of the soul.

That’s the manifesto. Now let’s get to the revolution: Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad. Talk about delight and confound. This is a book that sticks to you like pancakes.

Critics have had fun trying to pin this thing down. One one hand, it acts like a short story collection (and several of the chapters previously appeared as short stories in the Who’s Who of literary magazines), but on the other, it moves and reads like a novel. At least, the same characters appear and reappear at intervals throughout the book, and it tells a whole story. Then again, it does so without following a plot. Does that sound like fun?

It is, and I think maybe, for our purposes, “Mixtape” is probably the most accurate way to describe it, because, even though it isn’t audible, it links a bunch of tonally diverse pieces through theme and sentiment.

Or what other way would you pigeonhole a book filtered through the strainer of post-modernism? Similar to Pulp Fiction, Crash, or Lost, Goon Squad forces you to triangulate a narrative and make connections through a variety of protagonists and time periods. It also takes place against the backdrop of the American music industry, circa 1970 through 2020, which gives it a unified setting not dependent on one given location. Good thing, too, because the turn of a page might land you in Africa, a facist region of South America, or the turbulent waters of New York’s East River.

The book lacks a consistent protagonist, but the throughline is provided by Sasha, a kleptomaniac wisp who starts off the story assisting Bennie, an aging music producer in the modern day. Bennie’s relatives and teenage friends also occupy significant portions of the narrative, but the story always careens back into Sasha’s orbit, whether via her best friend and college sweetheart going for a fateful excursion in New York’s East River, her one-time date, Alex, bookending the tale, or her teenage daughter, Alison, coping with the realities of the nuclear family 20 years from now.

Alison’s chapter is a prime example of the book’s sheer inventiveness. Somehow, it proves to be one of the more cathartic sections of the book despite its lifeless structure, because the entire chapter is Alison’s journal in PowerPoint format. Charts and graphs map her family’s tics and interactions over the course of a single night, with her brother’s study of silent intervals in rock songs tying back into the book’s music industry motif.

Egan’s quoted saying that the Goon Squad of the title is literally time, and the decaying effects of aging are projected on landscapes and people alike, not to mention the evolution of music production. Even our communication seems to get diminished with time, as Egan illustrates in her brilliant final chapter (if you thought Orwell’s NewSpeak was a scary prospect, watch how we dumb down our mode of expression when a whole generation grows up relying on text messaging).

There are some very rough moments, whether in regard to language, sex, or death, so be advised that this isn’t reading for the teen audience or below. However, the whole is generally redeemed by the thoughtful treatment of a variety of characters, all interconnected, all raging against the dying of the light…

…and learning how to rock on the way.

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About Ben Humeniuk
Married to Christin, dad of two, follower of Christ. I'm an educator and a cartoonist. And I'm going to encourage us to understand.

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