2020: #39 – A Visit from the Goon Squad (Jennifer Egan)
Published by Knopf on June 8, 2010
Genres: literary fiction
Jennifer Egan’s spellbinding interlocking narratives circle the lives of Bennie Salazar, an aging former punk rocker and record executive, and Sasha, the passionate, troubled young woman he employs. Although Bennie and Sasha never discover each other’s pasts, the reader does, in intimate detail, along with the secret lives of a host of other characters whose paths intersect with theirs, over many years, in locales as varied as New York, San Francisco, Naples, and Africa.
We first meet Sasha in her mid-thirties, on her therapist’s couch in New York City, confronting her long-standing compulsion to steal. Later, we learn the genesis of her turmoil when we see her as the child of a violent marriage, then as a runaway living in Naples, then as a college student trying to avert the suicidal impulses of her best friend. We plunge into the hidden yearnings and disappointments of her uncle, an art historian stuck in a dead marriage, who travels to Naples to extract Sasha from the city’s demimonde and experiences an epiphany of his own while staring at a sculpture of Orpheus and Eurydice in the Museo Nazionale. We meet Bennie Salazar at the melancholy nadir of his adult life—divorced, struggling to connect with his nine-year-old son, listening to a washed-up band in the basement of a suburban house—and then revisit him in 1979, at the height of his youth, shy and tender, reveling in San Francisco’s punk scene as he discovers his ardor for rock and roll and his gift for spotting talent. We learn what became of his high school gang—who thrived and who faltered—and we encounter Lou Kline, Bennie’s catastrophically careless mentor, along with the lovers and children left behind in the wake of Lou’s far-flung sexual conquests and meteoric rise and fall.
A Visit from the Goon Squad is a book about the interplay of time and music, about survival, about the stirrings and transformations set inexorably in motion by even the most passing conjunction of our fates. In a breathtaking array of styles and tones ranging from tragedy to satire to PowerPoint, Egan captures the undertow of self-destruction that we all must either master or succumb to; the basic human hunger for redemption; and the universal tendency to reach for both—and escape the merciless progress of time—in the transporting realms of art and music. Sly, startling, exhilarating work from one of our boldest writers.
I pick up a lot of books without remembering what they are supposed to be about, so I was surprised to find that this was less of a narrative novel than it was a collection of loosely-connected short stories about music executive Bennie Salazar and the people in his orbit (and sometimes their orbits). I thought it was well written enough to keep me reading through the end, but I can’t say that it spoke to me or that it will stick with me. Or even that it made me eager to pick up another book by Egan. I did like some of the characters/stories (I wanted more with Sasha, and the story about the publicist helping the dictator was interesting), but for this most part this ended up in the “good for you, not for me” column.
I read this for the PopSugar Reading Challenge this year — this book fulfilled the “book with a great first line” prompt.
- “Overall, what I loved was how attached I became to these characters within the short bits of their lives you’re able to see. I felt like I knew these people. I hated & loved them. I was them. But the real character was the story itself, & American culture.” — ReinReads
- “Lovers of contemporary American fiction and experimental structures will enjoy this book. It is best devoured on a plane or beach, possibly after seeing your favorite 80s rock band. A warning: all of us share something in common with Egan’s characters. Be ready to disengage from suburbia, dust off your guitar, and reminisce about old flames.” — The Indent
- “It’s hard for me to really say why I didn’t care for it….I just didn’t. Perhaps you need to be in a particular ‘mood’ to read the book? Sometimes I go through phases like that where I just want to read darker, edgy, controversial books like this and when I read them, I love them so maybe I just wasn’t in the mood for a heavy book like this. I am not sure.” — The Lit Bitch