I am having a hard time classifying Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize winning book A Visit From the Goon Squad. On the one hand, it reads like a novel with a set cast of characters and carefully intertwined themes. Yet, it is also 13 chapters that read like short stories, change narrative perspectives, and could be read individually without losing too much. In fact, as I noticed in the acknowledgements, many of the chapters were published as short stories in various magazines and journals. The Pulitzer has been awarded to both novels and collections of short fiction, so that provides no hint of how to treat this book either. I’m going to go out on a limb here and review this book as a novel. My reasons are that taken together the stories offer a more interesting narrative arc that centers largely on Bennie Salazar, an aging punk rocker turned record executive, and Sasha, his personal assistant for many years. There are many other characters but these two seem to be the threads that tie everything together from Bennie’s early punk band days to his later experiments in orchestrating a social media concert with Bosco, a talent he discovered long ago.
The chapters move more or less forward chronologically with the novel ending in a near future. The second last chapter is narrated entirely in powerpoint slides, an amazing feat that I doubted at first as some kind of gimmick. The last chapter concerns a near future where interconnection via personal devices is heightened to an absolute extreme. Bosco, however, has lived outside of this world of social media for so long that the concert Bennie and Alex organize connects the people in an interesting and tangible way. When I finished this chapter, I felt like I had just been to a great concert myself. One of the strengths of the book is how Egan is able to evoke the passions, tensions, and feelings involved with music and youth. I used to listen to punk-rock and I connected with many of these characters.
This book is similar to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas in that each chapter takes on its own narrative voice with distinct storytelling features. For instance, one chapter is a report written by Julius Jones on his interaction with Kitty Jackson, a child star, that includes footnotes with his celebrity theorizations and an explanation for why Julius ended up attacking Jackson. This story connects to a previous one where a PR magnate is hired by a military dictator to soften his public image and manages to do this by having him take photos with Kitty. The chapter is both funny and deeply disturbing as Egan points out how social media can imperceptibly twist our perceptions of people. In this sense, Egan is somewhat like Douglas Coupland in exploring how current technology makes and remakes our social structures. This book is just waiting for a wheelbarrow load of grad student papers that take it apart (maybe I’ll put one together myself …).
This is a great novel that is funny and deeply engaging. I highly recommend it.
Egan, Jennifer. A Visit From the Goon Squad. New York: Random House, 2010. Print.