A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

I was motivated to read A Visit From the Goon Squad because someone suggested it might be a good choice for the Short Fiction class I’m teaching next semester. Billed as a novel (and not particularly short at a little over 300 pages), it can however be read as a collection of linked stories, which is an interesting structure to consider.

Each chapter of this novel is told from a different point of view, so that we recognize again characters introduced glancingly several chapters earlier, and are given a different stage of the story from their eyes. There are never two perspectives given on the same events, but rather, as the character of focus shifts, so does the timeline. So we first see through the eyes of Sasha, who used to work as assistant to Bennie Salazar, founder of Sow’s Ear Records. Several chapters later, we will get Bennie’s view of the world, when Sasha is still his assistant. Later still, we ride along with Rhea, a teenaged girl whose friend group includes fellow teenager and budding musician Bennie.

These POVs are sometimes first-person but more frequently a close third person. Bennie and Sasha feel like the poles around which this story turns, although I think it could be argued in a couple of different configurations; that’s the beauty and mystery of this format, where the central character shifts. Sometimes we’re reintroduced to someone we met in a very different time of life and several chapters ago, so that we (or at least I) have to pause and think about who they hell they are. It’s disorienting, but in a pleasing way. I’m very interested in how it all works.

This shifting center is certainly the most unusual and intriguing facet of this book, I think – although it’s also the one I came looking for, so your mileage may vary. The content subject matter was interesting for me, too. The music industry is both stylish and sort of icky and corrupt; Bennie’s evolution from young punk rocker to record executive gives us plenty to think about. Couples hook up and split up, and often we see these things out of order, so that perhaps we are not as taken in by the romance as we might have been. Because of the ever-shifting character focus, it can be a little hard to connect with one character as deeply as might be satisfying – at least, that’s the experience we expect from novels, I think. I feel more like I’m peeking in here and there, as voyeur, and less like I’m getting to know someone. Amazon reviewers spoke of an intellectual rather than an emotional connection, and range from “aimless and meandering” to “best read in twenty years,” so there you go. Opinions. This book also won a Pulitzer, so it’s certainly working for some.

I am intrigued by the challenge of this format. It took me maybe two chapters before I was really hooked in, and then I didn’t want to stop reading. But what I feel is less I-love-this-book and more fascination with what is different about it.

I can’t miss mentioning the chapter that is told entirely in Powerpoint slides: “Great Rock and Roll Pauses,” by Alison Blake, Sasha’s teenage daughter. The title refers to, yes, pauses in classic rock songs – a topic that Alison’s brother Lincoln is obsessed with. Alison is trying to explain and characterize her whole family, with maximum exasperation for her mother, a certain sympathy for her father, and a special soft spot for her brother. There is an insinuation that he is on the autism spectrum; rock and roll pauses are his way of trying to communicate. It’s a good example of the strangeness and sweetness of the whole novel. For a little of that flavor, you can watch a video of the Powerpoint here (sound on, please).

“Time is a goon,” says one aging rocker, and perhaps that’s what this novel is most about: time. I tell my students not to ignore titles, that they can give us hints as to how to read a text. This one’s a bit circuitous and opaque; you have to read well into the book to find that brief mention of time as a goon. But that’s another job a title can perform: it can tell us where to pay attention. By page 127, our ears are perked for this explanation of the title. It returns at page 332, so that just these two mentions drive the title home for the attentive reader, which now serves as a key to the whole. Time. And where does time matter more than in a 3-minute song that hopes to make millions, or change lives? Where more than in the cruel entertainment industry, where last year’s star is this year’s wash-up?

I am on the fence about teaching this book next semester, but it sure would make an adventure, wouldn’t it?

A Visit From the Goon Squad is a smart, subtle, fascinating exploration of the ways in which stories work and the ways in which music affects us. I do recommend it.


Rating: 7 seconds.

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