Often, as I enter the final pages of a book I love, I begin to mourn its end. So it was with Jennifer Egan's novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad, which I just finished. And it's actually sort of fitting I felt this way, because this is a novel about the passage of time -- and the gnawing anxiety that time's passage means it one day has to end.
I didn't know much about this book before I started it. I knew that it had just won the National Book Critics Circle Award, that my friend Marcela (who never steers me wrong) had loved it, and that rock music was a central theme. Somehow, despite my failures at music coolness, this was enough to get me to buy it and dive in, and I'm so glad it was. Egan, who I'd only encountered in short fiction here and there, is a relentlessly hip and intellectual writer with deep sense of life's pains and an even deeper sympathy for her characters. This sensibility carries her through a layered narrative and more than makes up for the few missteps she inevitably makes along the way. (Hey, novels are messy, okay?) Goon Squad can't be said to move in any one direction, instead spanning forward and backward over decades, characters, and locales. (New York City, Naples, Kenya, San Francisco...) At the center of it all is Bennie Salazar, a rock producer at the height of his powers in the late 1990's and early 2000's, and his assistant, Sasha, a beguiling redhead and kleptomaniac who keeps Bennie going. A different character anchors each of the book's thirteen chapters, so that the novel could be said to be a collection of connected stories, except that the stories are so masterfully connected and the themes they cover so epic that "novel" seems the only proper term.
Certainly, Goon Squad makes a reader think -- but as pure entertainment, it's also completely riveting. Whether I was dipping back several decades or plunging ahead, I read in a constant state of suspense -- for more information about the people I had met, and yes, for some further sense of what would happen to them “next.” Large gaps in people's lives are masterfully deployed, as we join many of the characters in wondering how on earth they got "from A to B." From skinny, spastic guitar hero to obese has-been with cancer. From hot young thing in Manhattan to mother of two in the California desert. This is purely brilliant in a book about time and the mysteries of change. Always, I wanted to rush forward to find out, but I also wanted to prolong the reading process as long as possible to preserve the captivating experience of the book. To live in its moment, and be young with it, before it got away.
[BONUS MATERIAL: On her website, Egan talks about the inspiration and writing process for each section. Just click on the time and place for a look behind the scenes -- after you've read the book, of course.]
author of The Violet Hour, reader, prodigious eater of ice cream