Blurb: Bennie is an aging former punk rocker and record executive. Sasha is the passionate, troubled young woman he employs. Here Jennifer Egan brilliantly reveals their pasts, along with the inner lives of a host of other characters whose paths intersect with theirs. With music pulsing on every page, A Visit from the Goon Squad is a startling, exhilarating novel of self-destruction and redemption
Normally books like this don’t work. If a book features chapter specific POVs recounting very loosely related vignettes, I will politely choose to place it on the bottom of my to-read pile. In chopped narratives where characters are just barely stitched together, I care about no one. Reading for me has always been an exercise in empathy. Caring about characters—and I don’t mean loving them or rooting for them; I mean caring in the basest way: having some sort of feeling for them, giving some sort of fucks about them, even if it’s like I wish you’d die!—is paramount.
But A Visit from the Goon Squad is the perfect way to use my most-hated narrative strategy. Oftentimes in these split narrative stories, we get a grand finale of a final chapter where all the stories collide and some sort of profound singularity is attained. It always inspires an eyeroll. But here the final chapter isn’t a huge merry reunion between everyone whose story we’ve followed. Each character gets his or her vignette, and that’s mostly it. Vignettes and characters are expertly chosen, because Egan produces a specific, desired effect in each vignette that eventually reinforces the entire thematic tableau.
In school when I studied Literature, I was often forced to name the theme of the story. Definite article “the” definitely deserved because my teachers behaved as if there was ONE theme, ONE answer, ONE profound life secret the author wished to impart upon his or her readers. I hated this task for its baseness, how it assumed so much about why and how we write and read. I’d always jot down the dumbest themes, sayings that you would see painted on a faux-rustic wooden sign in an overpriced gift shop: Life is short or Friendship is most important.
Basically I hate searching for themes and I especially hate the obvious themes, ideas so implicit they don’t seem to merit discussion or even direct acknowledgement by naming them. In a 9th grade book review for A Visit from the Goon Squad, I would write, “The theme is time changes us all.” In class if my teacher asked me to extrapolate, I’d say, “Time changes us all, for good, for bad. If we envision time, and life, as a river, it always flows, it always goes somewhere, even if we’re not sure where, and it occasionally, if we’re lucky, passes by the same people and same places again.” Then I would gag, because it seems so trite and so easy. But now I read a book that supports that idea and it touches me (present day Jill is gagging at the use of this verb, but whaddyagonnado?). In fact it touches me on kinda a deep level?
Maybe I’m just no longer a cynic or maybe Jennifer Egan is just a fantastic writer. This book put into words (and powerpoint slides!) a universal human feeling, a feeling so universal it feels terribly lame. Yet it didn’t feel forced but simply true.