Review: A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan

>>Published: June 2010

>>Finally got around to it: June 2011

Stephanie started to laugh. The idea struck her as inexplicably funny. But Bosco was abruptly serious. ‘I’m done,’ he said. ‘I’m old, I’m sad—that’s on a good day. I want out of this mess. But I don’t want to fade away, I want to flame away—I want my death to be an attraction, a spectacle, a mystery. A work of art. Now, Lady PR,’ he said, gathering up his drooping flesh and leaning toward her, eyes glittering in his overblown head, ‘you try to tell me no one’s going to be interested in that. Reality TV, hell—it doesn’t get any realer than this. Suicide is a weapon; that we all know. But what about an art?’

***

Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad is a hybrid of styles, a mosaic that at times reads like a cross between a contemporary, unguided iTunes playlist, and a concept album of old. Thirteen interconnected tales across two parts—A and B, just like a vinyl LP—that cross continents and generations as Egan explores the life of one-time golden touch and future success-to-be record producer Bennie Salazar, and through Bennie, the lives of many other characters, including Sasha, his impossibly tempting and mystifyingly obtuse kleptomaniac assistant.

Part A is the commercial—ready for public consumption. The tracks are easy to get into, clear and accessible. We meet the big shots—the players, past, present and future. Egan’s created an expansive venn diagram that pierces Bennie’s life, from his wild youth as a bass player for a group of wannabe successes called the Flaming Dildos, to his future in the business, and all the comings and goings of former friends and lovers, addicts and assholes, that have, in one form or another, orbited his star.

Part B is the special release, years down the road when the band needs to make a buck—when it’s time to expose all those naked, wounded B-Sides that were never prepped for the stage. We go deeper into their lives, into the intimacies that even the stars hide from the press, for fear that their carefully constructed masks might shatter under the heat of too many lights, too many flashes. Egan steps away from Bennie and his contemporaries and introduces us to the B, C, and D listers that couldn’t make the cut—the hangers-on, once-famous movie stars and talk-of-the-town hat makers that, for one reason or another, shined bright for only a second before flickering into obscurity.

Part B is suburbia. Growing up and moving on. Comebacks, rebirths and second chances, the deliberate breaks in a song and the reprieve felt when the next chord plays.

Technically, A Visit from the Goon Squad overcomes the most casual descriptors: linked short narratives that stand alone, yet merge together effortlessly; post-modern embellishments, such as an entire chapter of PowerPoint slides, that add emotional resonance to everything that’s come before instead of detracting from it; inter-chapter leaps into the far past and future still to come. Egan justifies the use of these tactics in unexpected ways. She never forgets her characters—where they are, what they’ve been through, and where they are headed. By offering critical slivers of their lives before and after one another, they become fully three-dimensional; their intimate little atrocities and misunderstandings and affairs—hinted at through side A and detailed in side B—chart the rise and fall of a disjointed band that, upon growing up and realizing with sobering distaste how little they connect to one another, are forced to move on, move up, or move out of the way altogether.

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