A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (2010) Knopf (2010) 288 pp
A Visit from the Goon Squad: 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. 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.
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. 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.