A glimpse of the past, present and future

Kara Martin

A review of A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan.

Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel A Visit from the Goon Squad starts off like a 1970s-type stream of consciousness novel, partly perhaps because it delves into that era. It takes a couple of chapters to get into this novel because it appears chaotic, and is non-sequential.

However, quickly it becomes obvious that rather than a random series of characters and plots, this is a carefully constructed narrative utilising multiple language techniques, including a newspaper article, and even a PowerPoint presentation!

The characters weave themselves in and out, slowly adding to the weight of the narrative.

There is Sasha who works for Bennie Salazar, a record producer, and who has a date with Alex, who turns up much later in the novel. We meet Bennie’s family, go back to his youth, and end up with the final performance of the guitarist who was his greatest success.

While all these characters and places and timeframes might lead to simply a confusing mishmash… instead I did find it an amazingly wise novel about the impact of choices from the moral decisions of youth to the consequences of trends in our society that we see today.

The clue to the depth of the novel is the title. One of the characters likens time to “a goon” which has the potential to come in and push you around. That is what happens through the novel, we see the impact of time on different characters, on their worldviews, and later decisions and regrets.

What is very clever about the novel is that it never descends into polemic or moralism. Egan can write candidly about a girl getting caught up with a bad character who introduces her to sex and drugs and rock and roll, and the consequences of those choices, without shoving it down the reader’s throat. Later we see how that character is dealing with that, the sacrifices she and her mother make, and the way her story plays itself out.

There is an awful lot about ethics and morals, but it is done so beautifully, that I haven’t seen a review that mentions that aspect, and yet reviewers talk about resonating with the characters, and how it is life-enhancing.

For me the intriguing chapter was the final one, which explores the impact of our technology-crazed, social media world on what might happen in the future. It talks about the marketing (already happening) where people are paid to rave about the “product” on facebook. It shows the affect of our worship of children, combined with early access to mobile technology, such that they are the ones who influence marketing messages and consumer choices.

There is a funny part where Alex points out that the new generation is “clean”, that is, no piercings or tattoos: “All the kids were now. And who could blame them… after watching three generations of flaccid tattoos droop like moth-eaten upholstery over poorly stuffed biceps and saggy asses?”

It is a world of violence and pollution and poverty; sustained by the need for relationship and the search for something that is “real”. Alex’ wife Rebecca has written a book about “casings” which are words that are empty husks, over-used and devoid of meaning. Words like: “friend”, “story” and “change”.

However, aspects of “real” flash up in the novel; like when Sasha is working with her therapist to write “a story of redemption, of fresh beginnings, of second chances”. Or when Sasha has nothing, a lost soul in Italy, but can look at a sunset through a window with delight and surprise as a gift just for her.

This is an amazing achievement of a book: challenging and heart-warming, and massive in its scope and conceptualisation.