A Visit From the Goon Squad
By Jennifer Egan
Jennifer Egan broke my heart. She broke it long and she broke it hard. But more on that in a moment.
A Visit from the Goon Squad is a acute piece of loose-fitting fiction that follows the lives of two generations of friends and acquaintances of varying degrees of connection. The narrative centers around Bennie, an aging punk rocker turned record producer and his mysteriously alluring assistant Sasha. Both Bennie and Sasha have secrets that won't tell and the novel simultaneously unravels and wraps them up tighter. The book starts in the middle and moves from the past to the future with jarring frequency, yet exquisite ease. Over the course of the book, the characters lives are intertwined into a Gordian Knot of wrong turns and lost opportunities. Yet somehow through sheer perseverance (in the sense of not dying) it all turns out and, like all great stories, ends with a concert (don't worry, this is not a spoiler).
As a work of fiction, A Visit from the Goon Squad is a prickly, sardonic ball of literary yarn. Prickly in the sense that it is possesses a hyper-intelligent self-awareness that reflects the emotions and reactions of the characters right back on the reader in terrifying clarity and sardonic in the sense that the novel seems to be hyper-intelligently self-aware of its self-awareness. Its a sort of meta-self-awareness that almost makes the novel too clever for its own good. Almost.
Just as an example, consider this maddeningly astute thought from a writer interviewing a young movie starlet:
I would like nothing more than to understand the strangeness of Kitty's world - to burrow inside that strangeness never to emerge. But the best I can hope for is to conceal from Kitty Jackson the bald impossibility of any real communication between us, and the fact that I've managed to do so for twenty-one minutes is a triumph.
By the end of this novel Egan has me reassessing the depth of my emotional responses. When I cry, am I crying because I am truly sad or am I deeper inside myself watching myself cry in order to illicit sympathy from the closest available acquaintance? And if I cry and think about crying at the same time, which one is the real me? Is there another me even farther back that watches myself watching myself? and so forth...
Like I said, this book is often too smart for its own good. But it's fantastic examination of life and hope and carrying on. As Egan writes: Time's a goon.
But I mentioned that she broke my heart. Well yes indeed she did. But it requires me to delve into what some might consider trivial (and for those of you who do think it's trivial, you don't know me very well). Much of this novel centers around the music industry and specifically the punk rock scene, a scene that I was never part of (too young) but a huge fan of (via unhealthy infatuations with The Velvet Underground and The Ramones that spiraled out of control). In one particularly avant-garde chapter entitled Great Rock and Roll Pauses by Alison Blake (written in a series of slides rather than in narrative form, I might add), Egan discusses an issue near and ear to my heart: Pauses in rock songs, those sudden false endings that sit in the middle of songs to add emphasis, a musical exclamation point via the absence of music.
She cites some exquisite rock and roll pauses including the one in "Good Times, Bad Times" by Led Zeppelin, "Roxanne" by the Police and "Bernadette" by the Four Tops. Great songs and great pauses, no question. But she completely neglects to mention the single greatest rock and roll pause of all time:
Waiting Room by Fugazi
Oh, Jennifer. For someone who name dropped a veritable buffet of my favorite punk rock bands from Black Flag to the Circle Jerks to The Cramps how could you have left out Fugazi? How could you overlook the pause that carries more gravity than all the other pauses in the history of rock and roll? How, Jennifer? You call yourself punk? Shame!
Such a formidable novel, such a criminal omission.