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Jennifer Egan: A Visit From the Goon Squad

When Jennifer Egan won the National Book Critics Circle’s fiction prize for this novel, the L. A. Times first reported it not as though Egan won but as though Jonathan Franzen lost it. Some bloggers rightly pointed out that this was blatantly sexist. While this is certainly the case, I think that, for the L. A. Times and, indeed, many others, Franzen is now the official US Man of Letters, a position previously held by the likes of Hemingway and Mailer and clearly never to be held by a woman. This means that he is newsworthy and Egan is not. It also raises the question of whether this novel or Freedom is the better novel. As I said in my review of Freedom, it discusses the special meaning of freedom in the US very well but that does not make it a great novel but merely a good novel. Egan also raises lots of fascinating ideas but she has also the ability and courage to go somewhat further than Franzen and, while it might be difficult to say that her ideas are better than his (or vice versa), there is no doubt in mind that this novel is a better novel.

Let’s start with the title. The title comes, in part, from Elvis Costello’s Goon Squad, the first track on the second side of his Armed Forces CD. However, it also refers to time. One of the characters makes the remark time is a goon. The character to whom he is speaking does not know the expression but knows what he means. I think we would probably say that time is a bitch but Visit from the Bitch Squad might not work. Apart from this, reviews have commented on two other key aspects of Egan’s novel. Firstly, it is more a series of linked stories than a novel but then so are lots of novel so that is not really an issue. Secondly, one of the chapters is told as a PowerPoint presentation. Trendy, cute, but it does not really work for me, perhaps because PowerPoint presentations look like work or perhaps, ad agencies, and not Pulizer Prize-winning (yes, it won that too) novels.

The story concerns a group of people associated with two people involved in the music industry in the USA, particularly the punk rock scene. Bennie Salazar has become a big-time producer, having made his name discovering the legendary (and presumably fictitious) Conduits. (There actually seem to be at least two bands of that name – a five-piece band from Omaha and a two-person band who have never met, from Toronto and San Francisco.) Bennie used to play for a band called, amongst other names, the Flaming Dildos (there also seems to be a sort of band with that name) but was never going to be a great musician so moved into the production/management side. Egan tells his story, the story of his kleptomaniac assistant, Sasha and various people they came across, including Scotty, lead singer of the Flaming Dildos, Sasha’s Uncle Ted, the record producer, Lou (who may or may not be based on Lou Adler), Lou’s son, Bennie’s (ex-)wife Stephanie, Stephanie’s publicist, Stephanie’s brother, one of Sasha’s children (the PowerPoint presentation) and others. The story runs from the 1980s to some time in the future. Egan’s style is to tell the story and, at the end of the section, tells what happens for the rest of their life. In virtually every case, things go wrong – divorce, extramarital affairs, drug addiction, cancer, lawsuits and other late twentieth/early twenty-first century miseries. Sometimes it is a one-off event – the journalist who sexually assaults an interviewee or the publicist whose party goes horribly wrong with oil lamps, while other times it is a lifestyle decline – affairs, drugs, bad living. The saddest story may be Scotty’s, who seems to have dropped out and be unconnected with the world and tries (probably not too successfully) to make a comeback, starting by catching a fish in the East River and plonking it on Bennie’s desk and ending with a concert he nearly does not make.

How did this happen? One character poses the question – How did I go from being a rock star to a fat fuck? and he is unable to give an answer. Egan is too good a novelist either to give us a simple answer or to moralise, though lifestyle choice seems at least part of it but is this lifestyle chosen or something ingrained in these characters? But the answer does not matter as Egan tells a series of clever, original, thoughtful stories, intertwined in many ways, intelligently written and just as thought-provoking as anything Franzen has written.

Publishing history

First published 2010 by Knopf