I’ve heard Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010) described as a short story collection disguised as a novel, but I absolutely disagree. While it does possess a unique mosaic structure – each chapter a self-contained story with a different viewpoint – there is a single, coherent throughline to the book, entirely thematic, and the “episodes” are intricately, artfully connected. It’s a brilliant, brilliant novel, and not just on the formal level.
The opening two chapters set the stage, introducing us to the book’s central characters: Sasha, an impulsive kleptomaniac who works at a New York City record label, and her boss Bennie, an aging punk rocker now working the corporate end of the music business. From their individual, engaging set-up stories, the narrative spins off into both the past and the future, to illuminate both their histories and their ultimate fates, through the eyes of a succession of characters who orbit and intersect with them. Each chapter contributes a new layer of understanding to their lives: from their wide-eyed, turbulent and reckless beginnings to their much more jaded, subdued and responsible ends. But in the process, this unorthodox revelation of character begins to speak to larger issues.
The surface story is a thoroughly engaging, alinear journey through time, across a rock music-infused American landscape from the late seventies punk scene to the heavily networked near future. But as the pages turn, clever structural intricacies clicking into place all the while, a sturdy thematic framework reveals itself underneath it all. The impulsive, selfish, partying attitude of rock and roll, so integral to the characters and their lives, turns out to be a precise, slicingly dark metaphor for the American way of life – its entitled desires, reckless waste, and grabby excesses. The dreamy, stargazing hopefulness of early life is fueled by self interest, and gives way to a much more sober reality as the characters mature. Meanwhile, the USA undergoes a similar transition, from unstoppable superpower to crumbling economic empire, a collapse bisected by the (barely mentioned) spector of 9/11. It sounds cynical and dark, and of course it is. But it’s also tackled with energy and wit, and Egan is sympathetic to her neurotic, slowly learning characters – who, after all, stand in for many of us who’ve experienced the last thirty years. The journey ends with hope – just a smidge, but just enough – which is the final masterstroke of a carefully executed story-telling strategy. In the space a few hundred pages of disjointed, complexly intertwined, Internet Era narrative, she crystallizes a decades-long learning experience for a generation into a short, sharp, funny and piercingly thought-provoking piece of art. Exceptional.