Jennifer Egan’s 2011 A Visit from the Goon Squad won that year’s Pulitzer Prize and was an international bestseller. It could easily be one of those novels whose existence began as the author heard one particular phrase, “Time’s a goon.” The phrase appears enough times throughout the book for it to stick, and for the title to make perfect sense.
Egan’s book revolves loosely (and yet, at the same time, so very tightly) around Bennie and Sasha—a music producer and his long-time assistant. Really, we only get a couple of intimate chapters for each character, and the rest of the book is about people who, in any other book, would just be secondary and even tertiary characters. Instead, Egan has taken the role of narrator and elevated it to a level that is at once removed and direct: the book is simply told as a collective of stories, a cast of characters who have a very real existence. It is not unlike Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, a movie whose storyline is so basic that its real artfulness comes in the dissection of its timeline, and whose characters are so rich that the idea of a main character doesn’t seem to fit. Why? Perhaps because that is the better story, the one that revolves around the idea that a main character cannot, and in this case does not, exist without the influence of other, equally important characters.
This richness of character is the real heart of the story, not music. There is no discernible way that this book is ever about music any more than it is about art, family, silence, and, most importantly, time. Time is the goon, and the Goon Squad is the cast of characters that is aged without mercy. Children grow up to be sexual beings, sexual beings get older and put on life support, some people in the transition from child to sexual being wind up drowning. Oh, and all along the way there’s divorce, children, technology, real estate development, prostitution, poverty, redemption, and haunting memory. Not haunting in a doomed sense—not that there is some dark secret to haunt our characters—but in the way that you reflect on a bad social situation from ten, fifteen years ago and cringe at yourself. The way memory can either flicker in a haze or burst forth in searing clarity.
When you finish A Visit from the Goon Squad, you get the feeling that the subject wasn’t really Sasha or Bennie. Thanks in part to the final chapter’s devotion to Alex, a character whom we think will just be a random character Sasha dates and fucks in the first chapter. But no. Alex returns fifteen years later, working with Bennie. By now, we know that Sasha lives in the desert and is married to a doctor, has two children (one of whom is presumably autistic, and he deeply values pauses in time, or holding off the goon), and is no longer the Sasha we know (this role is transferred to her daughter). The world around Alex is foreign to us: it’s the future, and it’s run by a younger generation that is, as always, incomprehensible. Really, Egan is writing about us, and we get that she’s been writing about us the whole time. The future is never for us. What was once cool is lame, what once was childish is now professionalism. The irresponsible are now in charge, and whether we have the whole picture or are living in the thick of it, it never quite feels right. The only thing for us, the only thing that’s ever been exclusively for each and every one of us, is a visit from our own goon squads.