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A Visit From the Goon Squad

June 16, 2011

I liked The Keep, so when I saw a new novel by Jennifer Egan, A Visit From the Goon Squad, I picked it up, and was not disappointed, although the two are quite different.

A Visit From the Goon Squad had a wonderfully dreamy quality, enhanced by the way each chapter is from a different character’s point of view, each is from a slightly different time period, and the time periods progress, while the characters become more intertwined.

Near the beginning is a section which begins:
“Nineteen eighty is almost here, thank God. The hippies are getting old, they blew their brains on acid and now they’re begging on street corners all over San Francisco. Their hair is tangled and their bare feet are thick and gray as shoes. We’re sick of them.”
And this section, of course, completely won me over!

The interconnectedness of the characters is emphasized by comments that are entertaining but don’t seem as important as they are at the time, like this one:
“Joe will go to college at Columbia and study engineering, becoming an expert in visual robotic technology that detects the slightest hint of irregular movement (the legacy of a childhood spent scanning the grass for lions). He’ll marry an American named Lulu and remain in New York, where he’ll invent a scanning device that becomes standard issue for crowd security. He and Lulu will buy a loft in Tribeca, where his grandfather’s hunting dagger will be displayed inside a cube of Plexiglas, directly under a skylight.”

One of the most affecting chapters is from the point of view of a character who never appears again, one who has tried to commit suicide and believes, when friends laugh at a joke, “that they probably only laughed because they could see you were trying to be funny, and they’re afraid you’ll jump out the window onto East Seventh Street if you fail, even at something so small.”

The chapter that’s told entirely in power point is a good complement to the others, as it shows a side of a teenage girl that readers might not be able to see otherwise. My favorite page is one titled “What I’m Afraid Of” in which she imagines returning to the house she lives in with her parents and finding that something she saw on an evening walk with her father was a time machine, and she’s “coming back to this place after many years.”

The last chapter takes place in the future, and it’s as imaginatively detailed and fascinating as any I’ve read in science fiction, while continuing the force of the story to what seems an inevitable conclusion. Babies are now driving the music industry:
“Now that Starfish, or kiddie handsets, were ubiquitous, any child who could point was able to download music—the youngest buyer on record being a three-month-old in Atlanta, who’d purchased a song by Nine Inch Nails called “Ga-ga.” Fifteen years of war had ended with a baby boom, and these babies had not only revived a dead industry but become the arbiters of musical success. Bands had no choice but to reinvent themselves for the preverbal; even Biggie had released yet another posthumous album whose title song was a remix of a Biggie standard, “Fuck You, Bitch,” to sound like “You’re Big, Chief!” with an accompanying picture of Biggie dandling a toddler in Native American headdress. Starfish had other features—finger drawing, GPS system for babies just learning to walk, PicMail….”

The part about bloggers being paid to shill for companies and services is deliciously satiric:
“Bennie had never used the word “parrot”; since the Bloggescandals, the term had become an obscenity. Even the financial disclosure statements that political bloggers were required to post hadn’t stemmed the suspicion that people’s opinions weren’t really their own. “Who’s paying you?” was a retort that might follow any bout of enthusiasm, along with laughter….”

And one particular description of the ironic way beautiful women wear ugly glasses is painfully accurate, reminding me of a photo of an American movie star, the parent of a student who was at the local college—bespectacled and smiling–on the wall of a local restaurant:
“…his wife had offset her sexy beauty with a pair of dorky glasses, sometimes leaning toward Dick Smart, other times Catwoman. Alex had loved the glasses for their inability to suppress Rebecca’s sexy beauty, but lately he wasn’t so sure; the glasses, along with Rebecca’s prematurely graying hair and the fact that she was often short on sleep, threatened to reify her disguise into an identity….”

The title phrase never appears in the book, but its meaning becomes apparent at the end of the last chapter, in the words of an aging character trying to encourage his oldest friend: “Time’s a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?”

The ending of the novel makes me think of my oldest friend, and regret the way I’ve let “the Goon Squad” push us around in the last few years. The most fabulous future anyone can imagine is possible if that person can see more of the connections between people and events. It’s hard for any one of the characters in this novel to see them, but occasionally a couple of characters get a glimpse from being together, and the cumulative effect of reading all the chapters is a truly God’s-eye view.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. June 16, 2011 10:28 am

    The reviews for this book have been mixed, but as someone who is starting to be visited by the goon squad, your review has really piqued my interest.

    • June 16, 2011 10:56 am

      As I said over on FB, some people (like Jenners at Life With Books) think you need to read it in one or two long sittings, because it does jump around. But I like the way reading it in short bits emphasizes that jumping around–it added to the dreamy feeling, where almost anything could turn out to be connected to anything else.

  2. June 16, 2011 9:56 pm

    I liked this book a lot — I’m glad you did too. I think you’re right about reading in long sittings; you really need to get into the flow of it to start seeing the connections and appreciating the complexity.

    • June 16, 2011 10:22 pm

      Maybe some people need to get into the flow of it, but I really did like the disconnected feeling of reading it in short bits.

  3. June 17, 2011 9:03 pm

    Wasn’t this just such a different book? I wasn’t prepared for its unique structure when I started and didn’t read it straight through, which made it harder for me to read and connect everything together. I plan on rereading it again to fully appreciate what she created here.

    • June 19, 2011 3:15 pm

      It would be a good book for rereading; it would be fun to anticipate the connections.

  4. June 18, 2011 9:52 am

    I was meant to read this for my book club, but I lost track of time, and then when I remembered I needed to go to the library and check it out, it was already too late. I’ve just gotten an email from my library’s electronic check-out system to say the e-book version is available to be checked out. I suppose I should try it — I loathed The Keep when I read it a few years ago, so I’m leery of reading this one.

    • June 19, 2011 3:16 pm

      You loathed The Keep? Hmm, not sure what you’d think of this one, then. One thing’s for sure, though; time is already a goon for you, as far as this book is concerned!

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