Originally posted here.
There are two paragraphs in Jennifer Egan
’s new book,
A Visit from the Goon Squad
, that heavily hint on its fundamental theme but were not at all written by the author. One is the book’s epigraph, taken from Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time
: “Poets claim that we recapture for a moment the self that we were long ago when we enter some house or garden in which we used to live in our youth. But these are most hazardous pilgrimages, which end as often in disappointment as in success. It is in ourselves that we should rather seek to find those fixed places, contemporaneous with different years.” The other is a note at the back of the book regarding the typeface used, supposedly written by the book’s typesetter: “The text of this book was set in Electra, [a face that] cannot be classified as either modern or old style. It is not based on any historical model, nor does it echo any particular period or style. It [...] attempts to give a feeling of fluidity and power.” These two extraneous blocks of words could not be more apt in drawing attention to the single intrinsic element of the novel contained between them that, already, unrelentingly makes its authority over the characters known to the reader page after mesmerizing page. That element is none other than time, the cruel visitor of the title as referred to in an aphorism half remembered (or perhaps wholly invented) by a character in the twilight of his life and career. “Time’s a goon, right? Isn’t that the expression?” he asks. “I’ve never heard that,” another troubled character answers. “Would you disagree?” “No.”
In Goon Squad
, time is also a prankster complicit in an elaborate trick masterminded by the book’s author herself, who goes as far as naming one of her characters after the personification of time in Greek mythology, Chronos. Egan's novel is certainly not of the time travel science fiction sort, but its clever use of a nonlinear timeline of all-too-real events is evocative of one that is. Kurt Vonnegut's
quickly comes to mind. Like poor Billy Pilgrim in Vonnegut's novel, the characters in Goon Squad
are also, in a manner of speaking, “unstuck in time.” However, given that Goon Squad
is decidedly non-science-fictional, they are not by nature predisposed to travel through time and randomly jump from one event in their lives to another as Billy Pilgrim insists he is. It’s Egan who does the unsticking. Although her abrupt transitions to different events, one of which happens in 1973 while another takes place in the 2020s, occasionally generate obvious and disruptive seams in the narrative, she still effectively and eloquently tells her characters’ mostly tragic stories out of sequence and convention and generously gives paragraph-long glimpses of their past and future selves.
The novel swoops back and forth through time as it focuses on certain events in the lives of a bevy of major and minor characters created by Egan. But lest a potential reader be turned off by this unconventional chronology which some may interpret as nothing more than another unessential postmodern gimmick that requires more effort than usual, it should be noted that Egan is both considerate and smart enough to drop one or two temporal clues within each chapter of her novel, so that when, say, the central character of one chapter is said to lie about her age in her online profiles, one learns almost instantly that that chapter is set around the time of Facebook and so-called social media, i.e., the present. Most of these clues are easy enough to decipher in a jiffy, while others are less straightforward, requiring a bit of mental arithmetic and recognition of allusions to characters and occurrences in earlier and even later chapters/years.
Among the story’s long dramatis personae, a few characters stand out and appear in two or more chapters although each is made the focus of only one. There’s Sasha, introduced in the very first chapter as nothing short of a mess: in a session with her therapist in New York City, she relates how she, while on a casual date, succumbed to another episode of kleptomania and stole a wallet in a restaurant bathroom. There’s Sasha’s boss, Bennie Salazar, divorced and all but estranged from his son, impotent and inclined to look at her assistant’s breast as some sort of a barometer for his erectile dysfunction. There’s Bennie’s brother-in-law, Jules Jones, a struggling writer imprisoned for attempting to rape a Hollywood starlet. They are but three of the twenty- or thirty-odd interconnected characters that inhabit the novel, which for all one knows is actually a short story collection that happens to employ a number of recurring characters.
But to dismiss Goon Squad
as merely a squad of short stories is to strip it of its underlying theme of redemption and reconnection. True, many of the chapters here would be right at home in the pages of The New Yorker
and other high-end literary publications. Also, one is free to read the stories in no particular order, similar to putting a digital album or playlist on shuffle, perhaps cracking the book open in the middle and proceeding to read another story a couple of chapters away from the previous one, thus compounding the obliqueness of the novel’s storyline. But so long as the book is completely traversed, its grip should be easily felt and its message appreciated.
It’s no wonder then that the book’s format resembles that of a record album. Its chapters are divided into parts A and B, clearly inspired by the A and B sides of vinyl records and audio cassettes, the analog music storage media of yore. Indeed, music, like time, plays a major role in Goon Squad
. Here it serves as a sort of sanctuary to the characters. Often, it affords them, beyond the desultory trips down memory lane, a strong sense of being. Sasha writes on her list of realistic goals, “Find a band to manage” and “Practice the harp,” sandwiching “Understand the news” and “Study Japanese.” Bennie, who is in fact a record producer, is transported back to when he and his high school friends were carefree sixteen-year-olds after listening to a couple of his old favorite bands in his car. Jules gets a new lease in life and gets to cover a musician’s last tour.
Whereas time is a goon, here (and presumably elsewhere) music is an ally, even as the latter is nothing if not for the former. Don’t records, cassettes, and CDs normally play clockwise as though to indicate the passage of time? Doesn’t the timestamp on a digital music player continue to increment even when there’s a considerably long pause in the currently playing track? And when one is made to think of a certain period, isn’t the kind of music that thrived during that period among the first things that come to one’s mind? Conversely, when one listens to an old favorite song, doesn’t one immediately think of the important events in one’s life that occurred around the time that song was released? Goon Squad
doesn’t necessarily pose these seemingly trifling questions. Rather, what it does, after telling the stories of Sasha, Bennie, Jules, and the other musically inclined characters through a polyphonic pastiche of styles that include first-person narration, journalistic reportage, and most notably PowerPoint (yes, PowerPoint), is to make one ask oneself an important question so that one may be encouraged to take stock of one's life so far and maintain or regain one’s purchase on it. This question echoes a line from a famous Radiohead song: "What the hell am I doing here?"