A Visit from the Goon Squad
by Jennifer Egan

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

"Time is a goon, right?" asks a passing character—in a book
chock full of passing characters—some one hundred pages
into Jennifer Egan’s novel
A Visit from the Goon Squad.
"Isn’t that the expression?"

"I’ve never heard that," comes the
response.

"Would you disagree?"

There’s a pause, and finally the
considered judgment. "No."

Okay, I hadn't heard that saying
either   According to my dictionary,
a goon is "someone big and dumb
who commits acts of violence for
money.”  (My spouse chimes in
now:  "No, that’s an NFL player…")  

What’s Egan up to here?  Although she is serving up a brash rock-
and-roll novel, our author is clearly unconvinced by Mick Jagger’s
assertion
"Time is on my side" or David Byrne’s proclamation that
"Time isn’t after us.  Time isn’t holding us."  In A Visit from the Goon
Squad
, Father Time has apparently sharpened his scythe and joined
a street gang.  

Critics are forever tempted to compare novels to other novels—a
lamentably reductive process, but one that at least gives potential
readers some measuring rod for what they might encounter in a new
work.  So indulge me.  In this instance, Egan’s willingness to play
fanciful games with chronology brings to mind two famous books
about heroes "unstuck" in time—or, borrowing Egan's jargon, books
in which
time is a goon—Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five and
Audrey Niffenegger's
The Time Traveler’s Wife.   But Egan’s work
reminded me even more forcefully of the one-story-begets-another
virtuosity David Mitchell demonstrated in his novel 2004
Cloud
Atlas.  In both works, each chapter is connected to the next one in
the same way I might, by playing the
"six degrees of separation"
game, find my personal connection to the President of the US or the
Dalai Lama.

Like each of these three predecessors, Egan presents a genre
mashup that mixes in elements of science fiction without losing her
book's pedigree as a "serious book."  I’ve
written at length about this
trend in contemporary fiction, and in particular about imaginative
power of recent works of literary fiction that borrow genre
elements, but Egan’s
A Visit from the Goon Squad is one of the most
striking examples yet of this tendency at work.    

Yet Egan offers her own twists that you won’t find in any
predecessor—both in the formal structure and kaleidoscopic
content of this brilliant work.  Each chapter in
A Visit from the Goon
Squad
abandons the central plot of the preceding chapter, but holds
on to a least one familiar character—who serves a springboard to set
another story in motion.  These separate tales are each so
individually compelling, that I was reluctant to move on to the next.  
Indeed, I feared that Egan was leaving behind more loose threads
than a frisky cat in a yarn store.  But—
mirabile dictu—she somehow
manages to resolve almost every plot complication during the
course of this peripatetic novel.  And she does this, moreover,
without every returning directly to the plots she has abandoned.  
The structural wizardry involved here is quite prepossessing.  

That said, the content is as extravagant as the formal architecture of
the novel.   Consider yourself forewarned: if you are looking for
stories built on subtle aperçus and ruminative accounts of the
quotidian, you are advised to steer clear of A Visit from the Goon
Squad.  A manic and maximalist sensibility pervades this work, and
as the chapters move along, Egan seems to be engaged in a game of
can-you-top-this with herself.  

Which story here is the edgiest?  Is it the tale of the NY publicist
who takes on a genocidal dictator as client, and makes him wear a
fluffy hat to improve his image?  Is it the story of the journalist for a
major magazine who interviews a starlet over lunch, and then
decides to abduct and assault her instead?  Is it the interlude about
the ailing rock star who wants to go on a suicide tour, pushing
himself so hard on stage night after night that fans will come—if only
to see if he will collapse and die in mid-performance?   

Yet the final sections of the book, which take place a decade or more
in the future, make these preliminary stories seem tame by
comparison.  Egan drags her key characters into a dystopian
nightmare scenario, a world ravaged by global warming and waning
resources.  These stories stay true to Egan’s character-driven
approach to fiction—so the science and technology never become
the main course here, as in so many "genuine" sci-fi books.  The
landscape is more akin to the futuristic urban environments that
serve as backdrop to, say, Jonathan Lethem’s
Chronic City or David
Foster Wallace’s
Infinite Jest.  By setting this part of the book in the
future, Egan is not driven by an obsession with gadgetry and
technology—although she offers some creative perspectives here.  
Rather, she embraces the openness of unwritten history as a way of
re-imagining the cultural and personal perspectives of her story and
as a springboard for psychologically rich narrative development.  
She is as interested in what people's attitudes will be like in the
future as in their high tech accessories.

Her depiction of a world in which marketing concepts become
psychological frameworks—imagine Freud rewritten by the faculty
of Harvard Business School, and you will get an idea of what she is
up to—is both insightful and hilarious.  But I am even more shaken
by her attempt to project both the future of storytelling and the
future of music.  What do they look like?  It’s worse than I could
have believed, and all too plausible:  stories morph into corporate
PowerPoint presentations and the music industry is built on the
tastes of 4 year-olds.  In all honesty, these visions are just logical
extensions of what we already see around us—but perhaps that very
fact is what makes them so frightening.

I read and enjoyed Egan’s previous novel
The Keep, but she has
moved up a notch, or maybe even two, with his follow-up work.  In
short,
A Visit from the Goon Squad is an important work, a
crystallization of many of the most provocative developments in
contemporary fiction, yet also freshly original in its deviations and
digressions.  It's worth adding that
A Visit from the Goon Squad is
also what non-academics call “a good read.”  And that rare
combination of smarts and sheer storytelling panache will keep me
on the lookout for what else this very creative author might have up
her sleeve.
The New Canon focuses on
great works of fiction
published since 1985.  These
books represent the finest
literature of the current era,
and are gaining recognition as
the new classics of our time.
In this installment of The New
Canon, Ted Gioia reviews
A
Visit from the Goon Squad
by
Jennifer Egan.
The New Canon
The Best in Fiction Since 1985
The New Canon

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Gabriel García Márquez:
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A Visit from the Goon Sqad

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The Things They Carried

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Trainspotting

Tobias Wolff:
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Tim Winton:
Cloudstreet

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Oblivion

Oscar Hijuelos:
The Mambo Kings Play
Songs of Love

More to come


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