A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Review by Lisa Levine
“A Visit From the Goon Squad” isn’t a must-read for MFA craft classes, but it should be. The recognition Jennifer Egan’s fifth book is receiving this year ought to remove any doubt that she is a writer to learn from. Her layered Powerpoint section and the sharp, twisty characters it illuminates spoke to me as much as they did the publishing world. In her Pulitzer-prize winning book, Egan drifts through time, balancing traditional narrative moments with a graceful, of-the-moment series of slides. Throughout, she focuses in on the imperfect, unpolished moments of her loosely connected characters’ lives.
More than any acclaimed aspect of the novel, I found the chapter titled “Ask Me If I Care” did what great stories are supposed to do – evoke the kind of knowing nostalgia people would feel if they recognized the best times in life when they were happening. Egan’s tone is cunning; there’s something eternal about her teenagers, one of whom – Bennie – will become the producer whose story threads throughout the book. The chapter, told in the voice of Reah, the group’s self-proclaimed dog, drains pleasure from the darkest plot twists – when Rhea stands in the audience at a club listening to Bennie’s band play, she’s flattened into scenery: “I turn to Jocelyn, but she’s gone…I see Lou’s fingers spread out over her black hair. She’s kneeling in front of him, giving him head, like the music is a disguise and no one can see them.” The characters’ lives don’t seem to be made of nostalgic material, but the act of telling tightens the screws on friendships that define and endure until the novel’s end. Music happens for that very reason – there’s a time and a place worth remembering, worth defining, so without cliché, the soundtrack of these teenage dreams holds true throughout the lives that follow.
Location overwhelms these characters’ dreams; in “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” enclosed spaces – rooms, cars, purses – seem to speak for their owners more fluently than can speech or action. Adult Bennie takes his son to hear a band he’s producing, and the closed-in space of their practice room creates heat even when the music is shit: “Bennie felt Chris snap to attention beside him when Olivia entered the room, as if a charmed snake had risen from its basket inside him.” The “Safari” chapter, where “the reader is forced to recognize that Egan’s characters have no choices left,” confirms Cathleen Schine the New York Review of Books, balances tension and freedom in an enclosed jeep from which the safari-goers keep trying to escape. And, in the frame of Sasha, a lonely woman who steals for pleasure and then becomes a married found-object artist and mother of the Powerpoint slide creator, material objects become the dream. Her tiny thefts – wallets, bath salts and other minutiae – cut through Sasha’s story; kleptomania intensifies her awareness and in one instance tears down the artifice of her family without causing irreparable damage. However hollow her actions, the thefts solidify and come to define her. By the novel’s downslope, Sasha’s found object sculptures have become a place of relative peace.
Winning out over Jonathan Franzen’s shattered love story for a Pulitzer says a lot, but writing a book that feels intimate and personal, and earning this year’s prize, says everything. “A Visit From the Goon Squad” isn’t that tiny book or band I love that no one else has heard about, but each time I flip open the pages of my paperback copy, I can almost believe that all the acclaim belongs to another writer, and I’m reading a novel I alone understand and cherish. Jennifer Egan’s light touch on darkness, ability to create depth out of trends and smart, fucked-up characters draw me into a one-on-one conversation with the author every time, regardless of how many other readers are having the same experience.
(Photo of Jennifer Egan by Pieter Van Hattem/Vistalux)
Lisa Levine writes, and lives, in Tucson, with her dog Saige. She is fascinated with coconut water, men who read, and figuring out how changes in human nature actually happen. This summer, she is teaching kids to love books. Lisa is the Sonora Review fiction editor.