Thursday, April 28, 2011

A Visit From The Goon Squad: Time Marches On

Music as a metaphor for the ebb and flow of life is a fairly common strategy in literature. But rarely is it employed with such hipness and fun as it is in Jennifer Egan's 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Visit From The Goon Squad. To drive home this music-as-metaphor notion, near the end of the novel, a character explains: "Hey Dad, there's a partial silence at the of 'Fly Like An Eagle,' with a sort of rushing sound in the background that I think is supposed to be the wind, or maybe time rushing past!"

In fact, the passage of time is the real rub in this series of 13 interconnected stories featuring several recurring characters. "'Time's a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?'" an aging music producer named Bennie tells an aging guitarist who is hesitant to play a show. Bennie, who owns a record label, and his assistant, Sasha, are really the two main characters. The novel goes back and forth in time explaining both their successes and failures. Sasha is a kleptomaniac with a checkered past — as a teenager, she'd run away with (you guessed it!) a musician, and supported herself by stealing, among other socially frowned-upon activities, in Naples. And Bennie struggles to come to terms with middle age and a failed marriage.

The crescendo and diminuendo of Bennie and Sasha's lives, mixed with those of several related characters, is what makes up the meat of the book. As time marches on, and mistakes are made, are the characters able to redeem themselves? And if so, how? And if so, is that redemption authentic?  

The characters' quests for authenticity, whether real or not, is another one of the more fascinating themes of the novel — an appropriate theme for a novel about the music business, don't you think? One of the stories chronicles Bennie's high school days (from the perspective of a female friend named Rhea who happens to have a crush on him) in the late '70s in San Francisco. Bennie and his friends — mostly from upper class families  — fancy themselves punks, but Rhea acknowledges that even with the green hair and dog collars, nothing is real until they leave their parents' houses and join the real world. Another story deals with a PR specialist who tries to rebuild a murderous general's reputation by hooking him up with a famous actress. And finally, the last story has a blogger (though in a futuristic way — because it's the year 2021) paying other bloggers to write nice things about a musician desperately in need of a big break.

Egan tells these stories in different voices and with different methods — one of my favorites is a faux magazine article, the tone of which bears more than a passing resemblance to a David Foster Wallace piece. There's also a story told in shapes that resemble PowerPoint slides — that story itself isn't as interesting as many of the others, but the form and ingenuity is, and this is where the music-as-metaphor theme is driven home in that the character Lincoln is obsessed with pause in classic rock songs.

This is a novel (four stars from me) much deserving of its Pulitzer  — and on a related note, it's awesome reading a Pulitzer-winner that's not a stuffy, too-literary trudge. Read this!


  1. I agree, it's a great book, and was one of the last ones I finished in 2010. My review/synopsis wasn't nearly as eloquent as yours, though:

  2. I have this on my TBR and didn't realize I've actually read some Egan before, until I read this. The story of the PR and the dictator is in another collection of stories I've read, and one of my favorites in that book. Well I have a feeling I'll be reading this a lot sooner now. Thanks!

    Also I noticed how little you used "I" in this review :)

  3. I agree. I had about written myself off of Pulitzers totally, as I have very little luck with them. This book I adored. AND I listened to it on audio.

    And I hear your wheels spinning, wondering how the hell they pulled off the PowerPoint chapter in audio, but they did, and it worked. This will be one of my favorites of the year.

  4. I keep hearing about this book, and the more I hear the more I want it.

    The only Pulitzers I've read are The Road and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, both of which I love. If Egan sends that to 3 out of 3, I might have found myself a Prize worth following every year.

  5. Outstanding review, really gives one a feel for the story and the feel of the book. I have been looking forward to getting to this one for a long time, hopefully soon!

  6. @Katie - I completely agree with you that "Egan captures the voice of each one well." The voices were distinct but all played into the common themes - one of the great aspects of the book!

    @Red - That publicist / crazy general story is one my favorites of the novel - some great satire there. And yes, I was terrified of being publicly caned by The Reading Ape - so avoided "I"s (even though I agree completely with him!)...

    @Sandy - That's amazing they pulled of the PowerPoint in audio - it was actually probably really short, though, right. It encompasses about 40 pages in the novel, but it's the shortest, (to me) least substantive story.

    @Ben - Good call - those two are two other very good examples of non-stuffy Pulitzer winners. Maybe I had the Pulitzer confused with the Booker? (Kidding...)

    @bookspersonally - Thanks for the kinds words! I hope you enjoy it as much as I did when you read it.

  7. This novel has been growing on me, waving at me from the shelves since the reading ape brought it up like six months ago. You might have tipped the scaled in its favor. Well played sir. Well played.

  8. Great review. I'm really enjoying this myself, and also was enamored of the DFWesque article chapter.

  9. I think your point that the work is more unified thematically (music/authenticity) than narratively accounts for how much more successful this linked-stories novel is than many others. In a way, it reminds me of Stevens' "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird", which tries different angles on the same concerns.

    By the way, what of the recent Pulitzer winners was stuffy? I guess the last two, Tinkers and Olive Kitteridge were pretty craftsmanlike, but the 7 or 8 previous to that were anything but stuffy.

  10. @Ben - You're welcome.

    @LBC - Yeah, I'd love to ask Egan if that was her intention there. It's gotta be!

    @the Ape - Agreed - the interconnectedness really was very interconnectedy here. I'd say Gilead and The Known World were definitely stuffy/trudgy. And I didn't read March, but several readers seemed to think that one was a bit of a bore, too...

  11. I didn't like this book at first, but ended up really enjoying it! Your review captures the essence of the novel well. It's funny - I didn't think of the last story as about bloggers, but something more akin to twitter or facebook with giant networks of 'friends' and getting the word out with something like 'status updates' - maybe that's all anyone has time for in 10-15 years. I'm glad I read it.