Harry's Reviews > A Visit from the Goon Squad

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
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May 01, 12


"Hey, Lou goes. He leans down so our faces are together, and stares straight into my eyes. He looks tired, like someone walked on his skin and left footprints. He goes, The world is full of shitheads, Rhea. Don't listen to them--listen to me.

And I know that Lou is one of those shitheads. But I listen."


A Visit from the Goon Squad isn't the first book I've ever read that refuses to say for sure if it's a novel or a collection of short stories--The Things They Carried comes to mind, as does Naked, in a slightly different vein--but it's the first time I've ever felt I had to care about that distinction. More than anything else the structure reminded me of the Arthur Schnitzler play Reigen that I'm half-remembering from a couple of years ago. The way Reigen works is this: ten characters of gradually ascending social class in late 19th century Vienna all sleep with each other in a regulated series of two-man scenes. The first is between the Whore and the Soldier, the next between the Soldier and the Parlor Maid, the next between the Parlor Maid and the Young Gentleman, and it continues like this until the Count has sex with the Whore after he sleeps with the Actress, bringing the whole play full circle, like a relay race. It was pretty saucy for 1897 and wasn't performed until 20 years after its writing, though by today's standards it's pretty tame (every time the characters sleep together in the script, the dialogue is interrupted by a string of dashes--pretty dirty!). It's a long and unwieldy play, almost never performed in total, and its themes are clear from the start. Whatever enormous differences social classes may have, sex is the great equalizer. Because of the play's length and repetitive thematic structure, there's a sort-of-hilarious scholarly debate about the possibility that Reigen is about the spread of syphilis from the Whore to the Count, even though there is no textual evidence to support this. In the high and lofty realms of critical analysis of classic Austrian theater, there's an urge to "finish" the play, even though there's nothing there to finish. In such a stuffy and pretentious atmosphere, it's refreshing to see such basic human desire, to attach importance and polish to something that might just be less than the sum of its parts.

The structure of A Visit from the Goon Squad is similar to Reigen, but it feels more whole and complete, less suffocated. In a profile on The Daily Beast Egan reveals A Visit from the Goon Squad was written in strict reverse-chronological order, beginning with the now-final chapter, "Pure Language," which takes place in the near future, and moving backwards through time, ending with whatever story would come "first." Reading the book now, it's surprising that the order of the stories was ever anything less than organic. Each chapter focuses on a specific character, and the focus of the next chapter is always on the periphery of the current story. In the first chapter Sasha thinks about her old boss, Bennie, and the second chapter focuses on Bennie while Sasha was still working as his assistant, while the third chapter focuses on Rhea, one of Bennie's friends while they were punk teenagers in California. The overall effect reminds me of the famous Copacabana tracking shot in Goodfellas, an unbroken shot of several characters and locations that looks natural and effortless, but it's clear that the effect required days of preparation and a skilled steadicam operator to pull off that level of casualness. A Visit from the Goon Squad is a tracking shot through time, capturing each of its many characters at the highest and lowest points of their lives, and it doesn't stumble for a single line. The whole thing flows effortlessly, as if it spilled out of Egan's head right on to the page in perfect order.

All of the characters in A Visit from the Goon Squad is trying to sell themselves as something they're not, propping up a believable façade in an attempt to mask their insecurities and failings even though it only highlights the ways in which they're lying to themselves and hurts all the more. Bennie Salazar is a once-powerful record executive, and he spends the whole of his story experimenting with an impossible aphrodisiac, sprinkling flakes of gold into his coffee to regain his sexual potency, literally trying to "fix" himself by eating money. Alison writes a diary in powerpoint that describes her family life in a style that comes off as corporate and cool, while discontent and depression bubble just under the surface. Rhea tries her hardest to be a punk but feels all too much like a teenager with goofy dyed hair, and she can see all too well how empty her friends' lives are. Three chapters revolve around the fortysomething record executive Lou, a terrifying womanizer described like an Eduardo Risso drawing whose thoughts we never experience directly. While always an intimidating figure, Egan lets us know by the end of his first story that his personality is a façade just like that of the punk teenagers he's sleeping with. He's an old man trying to feel powerful, but he's playing a role just like everybody else.

The progression of Goon Squad feels inevitable--everybody ages and everybody has to deal with it in their own way. The characters are all interconnected, but each story feels like its own little island isolated in time. In the last scene of Reigen, the Count tries to impress the Whore with his medals and fame, but she's already done business with him--she needs to move on to her next customer and get some sleep. It's a revealing scene for the two characters, and possibly my favorite in the play, but it doesn't deliver like the end of a story should--it feels like it could have fit anywhere into the narrative. The last story in A Visit from the Goon Squad, on the other hand, manages what should be impossible and brings closure to a string of stories that had all been left open-ended without narrative strain. In the last story the façade of one character acts as a healing force, not a desperate act of personal seclusion. It's a beautiful moment that I wouldn't dare spoil, but there's an act of hope and rejuvenation on one of the last pages that feels totally, totally genuine and totally, totally earned, even though everything leading up to that point was insincere and calculated. Egan's characters are all self-aware to the point of neuroticism and caught in the same mental traps, but Egan's voice in the end is reassuring, repeating the same points throughout the novel but never once coming off like she's repeating herself or wasting the reader's time. There's an urge I hate in all fiction that I can only define as the need to feel "important;" it's the force that crippled the modern reception of Reigen and a force that Egan sidesteps by telling her stories carefully, with no fat, so her confidence shines through and lets the novel seem like more than a series of words on a page. Like all the best novels, it's a story that never happened, but one that needed to be told.
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