By Jennifer Egan.
Jennifer Egan’s spellbinding interlocking narratives circle the lives of Bennie Salazar, an aging former punk rocker and record executive, and Sasha, the passionate, troubled young woman he employs. Although Bennie and Sasha never discover each other’s pasts, the reader does, in intimate detail, along with the secret lives of a host of other characters whose paths intersect with theirs, over many years, in locales as varied as New York, San Francisco, Naples, and Africa.
We first meet Sasha in her mid-thirties, on her therapist’s couch in New York City, confronting her long-standing compulsion to steal. Later, we learn the genesis of her turmoil when we see her as the child of a violent marriage, then as a runaway living in Naples, then as a college student trying to avert the suicidal impulses of her best friend. We plunge into the hidden yearnings and disappointments of her uncle, an art historian stuck in a dead marriage, who travels to Naples to extract Sasha from the city’s demimonde and experiences an epiphany of his own while staring at a sculpture of Orpheus and Eurydice in the Museo Nazionale. We meet Bennie Salazar at the melancholy nadir of his adult life—divorced, struggling to connect with his nine-year-old son, listening to a washed-up band in the basement of a suburban house—and then revisit him in 1979, at the height of his youth, shy and tender, reveling in San Francisco’s punk scene as he discovers his ardor for rock and roll and his gift for spotting talent. We learn what became of his high school gang—who thrived and who faltered—and we encounter Lou Kline, Bennie’s catastrophically careless mentor, along with the lovers and children left behind in the wake of Lou’s far-flung sexual conquests and meteoric rise and fall.
A Visit from the Goon Squad is a book about the interplay of time and music, about survival, about the stirrings and transformations set inexorably in motion by even the most passing conjunction of our fates. In a breathtaking array of styles and tones ranging from tragedy to satire to PowerPoint, Egan captures the undertow of self-destruction that we all must either master or succumb to; the basic human hunger for redemption; and the universal tendency to reach for both—and escape the merciless progress of time—in the transporting realms of art and music. Sly, startling, exhilarating work from one of our boldest writers.
As you can probably tell from the Goodreads summary above, this is not an easy book to summarize, which in turn means it’s definitely not an easy book to review.
Each chapter belongs to a different character. The first chapter starts with one main character, Sasha, whose story introduces a cast of background characters – Alex, her fresh faced date who is new to New York City; Bennie, her boss at the record label where she works; Coz, the therapist she talks to about her kleptomaniac tendencies -, one of whom then comes to the forefront to take over the next chapter, and so on and so forth. This is the chain that links these chapters together. They are not short stories, and yet they are also not quite part of the same narrative arc. Even though it’s mainly set against a music business backdrop, the story flows in every direction through time and space, and we get to know a little bit more about this wide range of characters through every slice of life we witness – the expectations of the past, the reality of the present, the dreams for the future.
This book is something that needs to be experienced, rather than explained. There’s no actual plot, and some connections between the chapters are rather tenuous, while others are very strong. You may relate to the majority of the characters, or with none of them. Several characters make repeat appearances, most notably Bennie and Sasha, who we see at various points in their lives from the perspective of many different people.
So if it’s not about the plot, and not precisely about the characters, what is it about?
The answer I found was, this is a story about real life.
Much could be said about the prizes this book won, the commentary it makes on the music industry, or even about the dystopian near future it manages to create in the end. Instead, I choose to talk about how it’s mentioned in the book that time is the goon. An invisible goon, one that creeps up on you while you’re worried about all the other more obvious ones. This is why I believe this book will be more appreciated by someone who is in the middle of their life, that age where you’re not young anymore, but you’re not yet old. There is a sense of nostalgia that permeates this book, a distinct impression of missed opportunities, a persistent questioning of ‘how did we get here?’, ‘how did life come to this?’.
My favorite part was the ending, and the way everything comes full circle. In the final chapter, we get to see where most characters end up when we meet up with Alex again.
Alex, who had such strong morals in the beginning.
Alex, who is now employed by Bennie and feels like he is selling out.
Alex, who currently has a wife and daughter but doesn’t know what the future holds.
Alex, whose memories of that first chapter night with Sasha are suddenly coming back.
Alex, who yearns for that long lost time.
Alex, who, at the end of this story, is standing in front of Sasha’s old apartment building, hoping to be able to recapture something that never really existed in the first place.
Alex, who is all of us.
4 hearts out of 5.