Jennifer Egan: A Visit from the Goon Squad

A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010):  I would have prejudged this book based on its title.  It brings to mind the contemporary loud, voice driven, substance-less, contemporary literary showy pieces.  I would have been very very wrong.  I didn’t prejudge it because I became  interested in — in fact, excited for — A Visit from the Goon Squad after reading some of Jennifer Egan’s fiction in The New Yorker (see the forum here).  Her first piece this year was “Safari,” which I didn’t particularly like, though it showed she was obviously a great writer.  Then I loved her second piece, “Ask Me If I Care.”  When I found out that piece formed a part of her new book, I couldn’t resist.  

Review copy courtesy of Knopf.

This book is a series of inter-connected yet entirely independent short stories dealing with a limited cast of characters and ranging fifty years, from the early 1970s to the early 2020s.  Each story could be read alone; each has its own world, its own voice, its own problems, its own inner structure.  There is a vast range of styles: the conventional third-person narrative, a second-person narrative (which is often jarring for me but works great here), a piece of journalism (which also works tremendously well — Egan writes for The New York Times Magazine too), and a PowerPoint presentation (again, I feel I should say this to fend off anyone thinking this is just a showy piece — this works very very well; somehow Egan has created a deep story that just wouldn’t be as deep were it not a PowerPoint presentation).  Each part comes together so nicely that the formal elements go into the background and do their work to enhance the ongoing narrative.  In other words — and Egan deserves an ovation — the virtuosic form and style don’t detract from the elegant substance of the book.  Simply, the substance is the outstanding element here.

Though each story can be read independent of the others, I wouldn’t recommend picking and choosing that way.  Egan has laid them out in such a way that it feels more like a novel.  We watch characters grow older and younger, we see their dreams fall apart and then we go back and see them formed.  Fittingly, the book begins with an epigram from Proust, something about time and memory . . .

Then we are suddenly engrossed in the first story where Sasha, thirty-six and a rising assistant to one of the country’s best record executives, is about to steal some poor woman’s purse while that woman is using the restroom in some downtown New York City bar.  With a smooth transition, we are with Sasha on the couch as she describes the event and her feelings to Coz, her psychiatrist.  This dual narrative continues on seamlessly, and we learn that waiting for Sasha outside of the restroom is/was Alex, her date for the evening, someone who has just moved to New York.  When the woman from the restroom appears sobbing, Alex starts up a little mission to help her find her missing purse, shocked that many people don’t get involved the way he thinks they should.

After the hullabaloo at the bar, Alex and Sasha go back to her apartment.  The descriptions of downtown Manhattan in the wake of 9/11 are fantastic, bringing the physical space — the absence of two big buildings and their light — into the mentality of the residents (really, they’re small parts, but probably as good as anything I’ve read trying to get a grip on those earlier post-9/11 days).  In Sasha’s apartment, Sasha maintains a little shrine of objects she’s stolen through the years.

Alex leaned over to peer at the tiny collection on her windowsills.  He paused at the picture of Rob, Sasha’s friend who had drowned in college, but made no comment.  He hadn’t noticed the tables where she kept the pile of things she’d stolen: the pens, the binoculars, the keys, the child’s scarf, which she’d lifted simply by not returning it when it dropped from the little girl’s neck as her mother led her by the hand from a Starbucks.  Sasha was already seeing Coz by then, so she reorganized the litany of excuses even as they throbbed through her head: winter is almost over; children grow so fast; kids hate scarves; it’s too late, they’re out the door; I’m embarrassed to return it; I could easily not have seen it fall — in fact, I didn’t, I’m just noticing it now: Look, a scarf!  A kid’s bright yellow scarf with pink stripes — too bad, who could it belong to?  Well, I’ll just pick it up and hold it for a minute. . . .  At home she’d washed the scarf by hand and folded it neatly.  It was one of the things she liked best.

Toward the end of the story, Sasha is looking through Alex’s wallet when she finds a note that has been there for who knows how long.  The note, in pencil, simply says: “I BELIEVE IN YOU.”  Before she knows what she’s doing, she’s taken the note.

This story is well balanced and controlled.  Egan is dealing with a complex structure, keeping the reader present both in that night with Alex and in the psychiatrist’s office some time later.  The themes that rise are subtle and have the aching feel of nostalgia.  We also get the sense that things aren’t going to get better for these two.  Sasha’s self-destructive habit is bound to keep her from reaching her potential — but she feels like she was lost years ago.  And whatever past Alex came from, with that note that meant so much he kept it with him, is quickly receding.  This perfectly sets up what is to come in the rest of the book.

After the first story, the book begins to go back and forth in time, though it only ventures into the future in the last two pieces.  We meet several of the main characters in one of the early pieces, “Ask Me If I Care.”  Though familiar, this piece is better than it was in The New Yorker.  Part of that is because it is expanded and more polished.  However, it is also better because we are reading it in the light of the stories we’ve already read.  We’ve met at least one of the characters in a previous story, and we already have some of the larger themes.  This doesn’t detract from the great individuality of the story.

Taking us back to San Francisco in 1979, Egan introduces us to a group of punk-rock teenagers about to go out into the world they really hate, though, as Rhea, the young narrator, comes to realize, only one of them is truly angry.  Part of this story is devoted to the sad story of Jocelyn (not the angry one — yet) who is seduced by a forty-something-year-old record executive named Lou.  The narrative takes on the opaque air of late nights filled with drugs, alcohol, and sex.  Still, through that our Rhea keeps her unique voice and her subtle, perhaps unintentional, insights.  Here she is talking to Lou, the aging record executive:

I go, Do you even remember being our age?

Lou grins at me in my chair, but it’s a copy of the grin he had at dinner.  I am your age, he goes.

Ahem, I go.  You have six kids.

So I do, he goes.  He turns his back, waiting for me to disappear.  I think, I didn’t have sex with this man.  I don’t even know him.  The he goes, I’ll never get old.

You’re already old, I tell him.

The next story turns out to be “Safari,” the piece I didn’t like in The New Yorker (imagine my surprise — I had no idea how that would fit here; it does).  In A Visit from the Goon Squad, it is fully fleshed, well balanced, not as blatant; in fact, I found it a beautiful piece that slows down the rushing blood of “Ask Me If I Care.”  In it we find Lou in the early 1970s on an African safari with his much younger girlfriend and his two teenage children.  He’s a lot more likeable here than he is in “Ask Me If I Care,” somewhat revising our opinion of him and preparing us for the pity and disdain we will feel for him when he lies on his death bed in another story.

Time is the goon in the title: “Time’s a goon.”  Time comes and takes out these folks’ knee-caps — or puts a bullet through their head — as they squander their dreams, sometimes through no fault of their own.  In a piece where a publicist takes a twenty-eight-year-old has-been movie star named Kitty Jackson to help polish the public image of a genocidal dictator, we watch that young star freshen up a bit as she prepares to meet the mass-murderer, bringing back a bit of the promise she once had.  In another piece, the fabulous journalistic piece, we read about an attack on Kitty when she was a young star.  This piece brought visions of Humbert Humbert to me as the journalist uses his incredible writing ability and narrative thrust to give an almost charming veneer over a horrific event that leads to a very sad vision of lost hope — his own, not Kitty’s.

Egan’s book is all over the place, but she has controlled it so well one never feels knocked around by it.  Instead we feel a bit of the violence of time, especially as we see characters we recognize but that are no longer who they once were: “That wasn’t me, in Naples . . . I don’t know who it was.  I feel sorry for her.”  The last story of the book takes us back to Alex, that young man with the “I BELIEVE IN YOU” note.  He wouldn’t recognize himself in that earlier story either, and it’s hard to watch him try to remember that night, that girl, while he tries to organize a public concert for one of the kids we first met in 1979, over forty years ago. 

After writing all of that, I’m sure the book might still look like a stylistic, structurally ambitious flight of fancy.  I assure you that Egan pulls it off.  The ambition, the variety — they never cloud over the intimate settings she’s created where we can spend quiet moments with these compelling individuals.  This is an exceptional book that, despite its appearance of flare, should be taken seriously.  I hope and expect to see it show up in awards season.

34 thoughts on “Jennifer Egan: A Visit from the Goon Squad

  1. Trevor says:

    Now that I have read the book and written my review, I’m looking at what others have to say. I was pleased to see this is the start of the review at The Washington Post:

    If Jennifer Egan is our reward for living through the self-conscious gimmicks and ironic claptrap of postmodernism, then it was all worthwhile.

  2. Trevor says:

    Another line I completely agree with:

    A scarifying story called “Out of Body” may be the only really successful piece I’ve read in the second person.

    I can’t think of one I’ve read that worked well; certainly not as well as this one.

  3. Lee Monks says:

    Wow, sounds fabulous. Never heard of her to be fair. Can you compare her to anyone? Lorrie Moore? AM Homes?

  4. Trevor says:

    Hmmm, Lee, I can’t compare her to anyone. Her stuff here really is across the board. I’ve been trying to think of someone, but no one else has done a PowerPoint Presentation. I don’t compare this book to what I’ve read of Lorrie Moore, though. Then again, I haven’t read much by Moore. You’ll have to read it and let me know :)

  5. Trevor says:

    Very cool! This book, with all its dealings in the music industry, and particularly with its PowerPoint chapter, needs a playlist accompanying it. 8tracks has put one together — click here.

  6. Lee Monks says:

    I’ve pushed this to the top of the queue, I can’t wait!

  7. Just read the Sunday NY Times review — as usual, Trevor is not only sooner, he is better. I will be marking this one down for an autumn read.

  8. Lee Monks says:

    Hear, hear on that. I’ve just read the NY Times review and completely concur. Furthermore, to suggest, as both do, that the ‘novel’ is a fine one, Trevor’s review instilled much more of an urge to buy the thing than did the NY Times review. I suppose what I’m saying is: guys, a bit more enthusiasm for favoured books might perpetuate a few more sales and a healthier state of affairs. They really should check out this blog and the blogs of the contributors a wee bit more.

  9. Trevor says:

    Well thanks for the compliments, Kevin and Lee. I just read the review and was disappointed myself, because this book deserves more and less. After all that jabber about plot summary, the reviewer sure goes on to do just that, but I don’t think he explains why the book is so good. The plot is so strange, as he shows, that I think a summary might turn some people off. And why is it that The New York Times often tends to reveal so much? Kakutani’s reviews sometimes drive me nuts for this. Is it an attempt to say that they understood the deeper aspects of the book, that the plot is below them, in fact, because they understood it so well? It somtimes seems that way. Oh well.

    I do think that as a blogger I have an advantage, besides the fact that no editorial board is looking over my shoulder: I can gush in my enthusiasm to share a good book with the friends who I know are going to read my review and who hopefully will share their thoughts if they read the book too. I could be wrong, but it seems print reviewers, and I am a fan of many, tend to show a bit more disinterestedness, not to confuse that with objectivity, and maybe that’s partially because there is no expectation of any dialogue in the future. I can give a gut reaction (though I try to step back and explain my feelings). Also, I can be convinced I was wrong in the comments, or explain the holes in my argument, but their opinion is searchable by folks decades from now. I think James Wood does a good job showing enthusiasm or disdain and then backing himself up, but he has five to ten times more room than even the Sunday Book Review’s cover review. Ron Charles, though, does not have much space, and I think his reviews are illuminating and get me excited about books.

    I’m writing this on my iPhone, so the comment is long and rambling, and probably full of typos. It is too much of a pain to edit comments on this thing so I will let this stand.

  10. Lee Monks says:

    Kakutani drives me nuts as well, and has done for years. I feel there is an agenda there, and whilst I still watch out for her reviews, I don’t entirely trust them.

    Yes, I can see there is more opportunity to speak freer, less in the way of editorial constraint but I have to ask: is that not something that could easily be dispensed with anyway? I’m fed up of tentative, non-commital encapsulations of plot that reek of either not having bothered to read the book in question or merely a nervousness about putting themselves on the line by – God forbid – offering a definite opinion.

    Nick Lezard, who reviews a paperback every week for The Guardian, seems to be untethered and able to simply say whatever he wants within the scope of his column. I say it’s the way to go: I’m well aware of the political minefield/publishing links/reluctance to burn bridges aspect to print reviews but I can’t abide the status quo. The blogworld is that much more alive.

  11. Lee Monks says:

    Halfway through this, Trevor – and it’s the most exciting introduction to a writer in a long time. Quite brilliant thus far.

  12. Trevor says:

    It seemed that when I began each story and found the style I would think, oh, this is where it’s going to fall flat. Who can sustain a second-person narrative? And then she does it. And that kind of thing kept happening until the last section. I loved them all, and I think you will continue to enjoy them Lee. I look forward to your final thoughts.

  13. Lee Monks says:

    Yes indeed, it’s hard to figure out how she’s getting away with some of it. But it all works wonderfully well. I certainly thank you for drawing my attention to it and I will comment again as soon as I’ve finished.

  14. Lee Monks says:

    An exceptional piece of work, that manages to be enjoyable on several levels. Brilliant characterisation, great dialogue, extremely cleverly constructed from start to finish and as warm and joyous as it is inventive. It very much reminded me of a gentler top-level Coupland and is the kind of book Nick Hornby could only dream about writing. Brilliant.

  15. Lee Monks says:

    One two many ‘brilliant”s in there but both fully deserved!

  16. Trevor says:

    I hope those drawn to the book by our praise are not disappointed by high expectations, Lee :)

    Then again, it’s hard to imagine someone not getting sucked into the current.

  17. Lee Monks says:

    It’s ‘overt enthusiasm’ proof I hope!

  18. Hm, you and Lee both on this side of the debate. Kevin and John Self on the other. Interesting.

    I’m not wholly sure of the quotes, but quotes are tricky things. There’s a bit of a leap of faith required with a recommendation of a book like this one.

    The aside on the NYT was interesting. I sometimes feel writing my own reviews that could I but discuss the key moments and even the ending in reasonable detail I could write a much better review. I choose to write a poorer one though, and so preserve the book for those who might actually want to discover those moments for themselves.

    The London Evening Standard had a review of Black Swan the other day so detailed I now feel little need to see the film. I know every plot development of consequence. There’s absolutely a place for critical analyses which do explore the plot and end in detail, but not in newspaper reviews which are generally for those deciding whether to read/watch the work in question.

    Anyway, I’m rather split now. Kevin put me off it. You’ve tempted me. I’ll have to wait until it hits paperback and browse a copy in a shop to see what I think. Tricky.

  19. Thank you for recommending this one Trevor. I had to wait a while for it to be published in the UK but it was well worth the wait. Thoughts here.

  20. I was just over at Kevin’s Trevor looking at his review of this. Did you see the recent LRB take? Pankaj Mishra wrote a very positive (and given it’s the LRB very well written) review which has tilted the balance for me to checking it out (well, given the split of opinion that was inevitable anyway, but a further tick in the positive box doesn’t hurt).

    It’s out on kindle, so I’ll be adding it to my lengthy (oh so lengthy) TBR queue.

  21. Trevor says:

    I hadn’t seen that article, Max, but I have it to read now — so thanks! It’ll be interesting to hear how you get on with the book!

  22. Lee Monks says:

    I’m doing a short review of the book for a magazine and have therefore revisited it – it’s pure glee, reading it. Effervescent, intoxicating, and just has this rare quality: light yet powerful.

  23. Trevor says:

    Is there a link to the magazine review, Lee?

  24. Lee Monks says:

    Alas no: they don’t put all the print stuff on the website. Once again, books make way etc. But I could certainly send it you: you convinced me to fork out for the US hardback and a wise investment it was!

  25. Trevor says:

    This book has just won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

  26. Lisa Hill says:

    Well done, Trevor – you picked a winner with this one! I don’t think I’m going to like it (PowerPoint? Yeech!) but I’ll definitely read it – and will be very happy if my misgivings fall away. Thanks for a great review.

  27. Colette Jones says:

    This is an excellent book, your review is spot-on, Trevor.

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