The Book I’m in Love With and Obsessed With
It’s harder, I think, to write about why you love something than to write about why you hate something. Your love, your admiration, your enthusiasm—somehow something gets lost in translating those feelings to paper.
I say this because whatever I’m trying to convey about Jennifer Egan’s staggering work of fiction, A Visit from the Goon Squad, may not come across as forcefully as I’ve hoped. In fact, I may just sound like a blathering, hyperbolic, overenthusiastic, giddy nerd. But, to put it in generically inadequate terms, I loved this novel. It blew me away. It’s still haunting me. I still can’t stop thinking about it. It’s one of those rare books that I’ll add to my all-time favorites list right away. It’s a book that I know I’ll go back to and reread, a few times, perhaps many times, throughout my lifetime. And Egan is now one of those indispensable authors (like Anne Tyler, Alice Munro, William Maxwell, to name just a few) whose every work I’ll devour. In fact, I just started The Keep, one of her earlier novels. Already I’m hooked.
But, first, back to her new book. Notice I didn’t call A Visit from the Goon Squad a novel. Nor did I call it a collection of stories. It’s more like a collection of linked stories. But even that doesn’t do it justice. So maybe “novel” is the best term, because the book holds together like one—a sprawling yet intimate work, ambitious without sacrificing the heartbreaking humanity that often gets lost in such far-reaching material. It manages to say something about the world we live in, but it’s also filled with decidedly human, real people. Egan, in crafting this powerful assemblage, never sacrifices character to make a point about the way we live now. But she truly does, more than any book I’ve read in a while, reveal, through a very human lens, the way we live now.
A Visit from the Goon Squad starts with a story about Sasha, a young woman living in New York who has a penchant for stealing things. The next story is about Bennie, Sasha’s record-producer boss, set a few years earlier before he fired Sasha. Then we’re transported back to 1979, in the Bay Area, in one of the novel’s most affecting “chapters,” “Ask Me If I Care.” This time our narrator is Rhea, a freckled girl who is in love with Bennie—yes, the Bennie we’ve already met as an adult. Here Benne is a mohawked teenage member of a wannabe punk bad, an enigmatic young man who only has eyes for Alice. But Alice is in love with his bandmate, Scotty. Then there’s Jocelyn, Alice’s sexy biracial friend, who’s having an affair with a far-older man named Lou, a hot-shot record producer. We next see Lou, five years earlier, in yet another brilliant, devastating chapter called “Safari.” “Safari” is audacious and heartbreaking, featuring these sweeping flash-forwards that shouldn’t work but do, to devastating (and sometimes humorous) effect. Later, in yet another affecting chapter called “You (Plural),” we see Lou again, many years later, dying at home, a wreck of a man. Jocelyn and Rhea, now adults, come to his bedside to visit him. Rhea has emerged from adolescence unscathed; the freckled girl who always thought she’d be invisible to boys and men is the mother of three children. Jocelyn hasn’t been so lucky. She’s a recovering drug addict, angry that Lou had robbed her of her youth, robbed her youth of its innocence. You’ll also see Scotty again later in the book, in a few stories, and of course Bennie, who (along with Sasha) might come closest to being labeled the central protagonist of Goon Squad, though this is debatable.
Summarizing these stories doesn’t really do the book justice. Some of these stand alone quite powerfully. In fact, most could stand alone (and have stood aone in magazines and journals) just fine. But the stories hold so much more power taken together as a fragmentary whole. In a great interview recently in Bomb Magazine, Egan said that she viewed the book as a Chuck Close painting, “in that every small square was its own individual work, and yet they all added up to something bigger.” I think this is an apt, wonderful description.
A story later in the book, called “Out of Body,” features a young Sasha, but she is not the main character in this piece. Her college friend Rob is. Another character is Drew, Sasha’s boyfriend. They are all students at NYU, passing through a drug-fueled Saturday that ends in tragedy. The story is written in the second person—though pay careful attention to how Egan shifts this point of view at the very end of the story, to, well, I’ll say it again, devastating effect. Perhaps this story moved me so because it’s set in 1992, the same time I was in college (though not in New York). Or maybe it holds special appeal because, over the last few powerful pages, Rob and Drew walk down the East River, following a path which is basically where I jog these days. Or maybe it’s because Rob is one of those guys who, like me, loved women, wanted so badly to be in love with one (in his case, Sasha), but who deep down knows something is slightly off. Because though Rob loves Sasha so much that it hurts him, he’s clearly in love with Drew (“If you could see Drew naked, even just once, it would ease a deep, awful pressure inside you”). He loves men, lusts after men, and yet he can barely bring himself to acknowledge this. Rob, perhaps more than any other character in the book, is the one who has haunted me the most (though Rolf, Lou’s son, comes a close second).
Late in the story, Rob says, “Let’s remember this day, even when we don’t know each other anymore.” Bix, one of their friends, a grad student who spends a lot of time messaging other grad students on his computer, which he says is the wave of the future (remember, this is 1992, and email—I know it’s hard to believe—was in its infancy, the habit of a select few people), says, “Oh, we’ll know each other forever . . . The days of losing touch are almost gone.” So true. I can only think of a handful of people I’m not longer in touch with, a few odd souls who haven’t popped up on Facebook.
I read “Out of the Body” while taking the bus to work, and managed to finish it right at my stop. But I was so gutted by it, so crushed—but also so enraptured by the brilliant writing and poignancy and relevancy of it—that I almost couldn’t get out of my seat. But like most of the stores in Goon Squad, it has added power because by this point we know Sasha already. The story later gains more power and poignancy, because years later, after Sasha and Drew lose each other—after losing Rob—we see Sasha as a mother, living in the desert with her husband, who happens to be Drew. This later story, “Great Rock and Roll Pauses,” told as a Power Point presentation, is narrated by Sasha and Drew’s daughter Allison. A Power Point presentation as a story, you ask? If it sounds gimmicky and awful, trust me, it isn’t. It works to marvelous effect. What can’t Egan do brilliantly, I am starting to wonder?
And what about the title? What is the goon squad? Well, to paraphrase what a few characters say a few times in the book, time’s a goon. It sneaks up on you and leaves you feeling beaten up and battered. Time marches on. Sure, it’s not a new point or idea, but no one has made that reality more deeply felt than Egan has in A Visit from the Goon Squad.
I fear, perhaps, that I’ve overhyped this book. But I wouldn’t be alone in that. It has gotten ravishing praise from critics all over the place. So, as they say, don’t take my word for it. But read this book, now, soon! You won’t be sorry.
I’ll be interested to see how this book fares in award season. For my money, I say give Egan the National Book Award—and, hell, why not, the Pulitzer too! But a book like this doesn’t need an award. It will live on, I’m certain, as one of the great works of our newish century.