Going Ape Shit Over A Book: On Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad

There comes a time when it’s just so damn difficult to write a proper review just because you are too in love with the subject of the piece. That’s the situation I face with Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which recently won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. When I first heard of this novel in 2010, back when Random House initially released the hardcover edition, it immediately got my attention.  Critics praised its publication, despite the uproar and celebration brought by Franzen’s Freedom. When everything else published suffered the ignoring eye of critics and reviewers, Egan’s work gained notice. Some even hailed it as “a new classic of American fiction.” However, that is not the reason why I possessed the incessant need to read the novel. I think I’ve heard and seen the phrase “new American classic” too many times to believe that a book could actually embody such a heavy-handed comment. My desire to read it stemmed from the fact that the work oddly enough sounded like a Cameron Crowe film, or a book penned by Lester Bangs. And by god, I was sold to that idea.

The narrative primarily focuses on Benny Salazar, an aging music producer and the former bassist of “The Pink Dildos,” and her assistant Sasha Taylor, a young woman with a serious kleptomania problem and a terrible past which includes a brief prostitution stint in Naples and a long addiction to heroin, marijuana, among other things. In the course of telling their stories, we are also told the stories of the other characters connected to the two protagonists: Lou, Benny’s mentor, one of the great music executives of the 70’s who lived the “Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll” lifestyle that became rampant in the during that era, Dolly, A PR specialist trying to regain her popularity and dignity after her tragic downfall, Lulu, Dolly’s daughter, who will eventually work for Benny in 2020, and Rob, Sasha’s suicidal best friend, who plays a pivotal role on how Sasha will pursue her life. In addition to that large cast, there’s also Ted, Sasha’s uncle who will search for his niece aimlessly in Naples while reflecting on his love for art and his family, Scotty, Jocelyn and Rhea, Benny’s band mates in The Pink Dildos,  and Kitty Jones, a popular actress who fell off the spotlight after she was almost raped by a journalist.  The multiple narratives of the story are set against the backdrop of the ever-changing American music scene, from the heydays of the punk movement of the seventies, to a speculative take on what the music will be like in 2020.

I began the novel expecting to read something like High Fidelity or Love is A Mixed Tape or even Almost Famous.  I opened the novel feeling relaxed, feeling laid back, anticipating that this will be a light reading, which was a foolish stance at that time. As the pages went on, I delved into a narrative far different from what I initially thought.  This may sound like a cop out, but the thing is, I love every damn section of the narrative. I like its Proustian vibe, on how it tries to tackle the subject of time, memory, its intertwined relationship and the effect brought on by its passing. I like it even more that the basic idea of an exploration was inspired by, of all things, an Elvis Costello song. I love how rock music plays a dominant role in the piece, how the power of this art form actually becomes an essential element in the assembly of one’s life and the structural integrity of a whole community, how one song can transcend its form of being a mere vehicle for entertainment and enjoyment and become a drive force that connects human beings to one another. I love the gimmicks, the so –called literary devices employed in the writing of the novel, how it resists labels and the concept of a genre, as the readers are never  made aware if the text is a novel, a collection of short stories, or a collection of interlocking short stories (From a bookselling and publishing point-of-view, Amazon lists the hardcover edition of this book as a short story collection, while the trade paperback edition is listed under novels, while in the Random House catalog, it’s under short story collections, even is the front cover of the book says it’s a novel). I like the sheer Bakhtinian feel of the novel, the multiplicity of voices (literally and literarily), the abundance of forms used, the constant shift from one decade to the other, to this place and that, to this character and another, and I love how there is no real structure to this seemingly endless shifting, embodying the chaos of their lives, and the pandemonium of the reader’s life. And damn, there’s a short story made entirely of PowerPoint slides, a short narrative focusing on the pauses of several great rock songs, told by Sasha’s daughter. What is the most gimmicky of the entire collection, also turns out the best, as it not only gives us a staggering amount of freshness, it’s also fun, enjoyable and slightly poignant as it tries to delves into the relationship of the family by using pie-charts, bar graphs and statistics.  The characters are instantly relatable and sympathetic. The structuring of the narrative is amazing. The points of view chosen, appropriate. Each detail is exact and precise. For me, the novel can do no wrong. It is perfect, so perfect that I’m starting wonder if what I’m saying is right, or I’m just saying this for the sole reason that this is the kind of novel I have always wanted to write.

Obviously, my biases have yet again taken over me. And I’ve only had my way with the novel once, so, following Nabokov’s paradigm for reading, I have barely touched what the novel really is. Months from now, I will go back to Egan’s work, and I might have a different opinion on the text, on those that I am in completely in adoration of. I might have my qualms about its structure, about how little time was given to a particular character, or about how the balance of the narrative(s) is just off. I may say shit about the whole PowerPoint narrative. Things could go awry and that much is true. But right now, at this very moment, I am completely in love with the book, something which I have not experienced for quite a while in my reading life.

*The book was sent to me by the generous people over at Random House, and will be available in Powerbooks after Holy Week.