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52 Books #11: A Visit from the Goon Squad

March 20, 2011

I’ve been looking forward to Jennifer Egan’s new book  A Visit from the Goon Squad (Corsair) for six months, having read great reviews of it from the US press (but not having been sensible enough to pick up a copy when I was there). Half a year after US publication, it arrives in the UK, bearing one of the most appalling covers I’ve ever seen [left]. Honestly: what’s going on there? Aside from the fact the mimsy colours and line drawing give it the unmistakeable air of a chick-lit monstrosity, there’s the weird ‘creased paper’ effect (is this meant to make it resemble a setlist? If so, why?), and the inexplicable illustration of musical notes as raindrops bouncing off a sappy girl’s umbrella. It bears no resemblance to the contents, and still manages to undersell it. (Doubly — or maybe trebly — disappointing after Corsair/Constable did such a great job on both the hardback and paperback covers of m’colleague Neel Mukherjee’s novel last year.)

Anyway: to the book itself. Neither  a novel nor a short story collection, Goon Squad is a series of thirteen linked chapters, some of which work as standalone stories, others of which are more comprehensively linked into the umbrella narrative (hey — surely this isn’t the reason for the brolly on the cover?). The stories revolve to a greater or lesser degree around Bennie Salazar, a 1970s music mogul, and his PA, Sasha; as the stories move about in time and geography, their fortunes rise and fall, and their friends, relatives and connections influence and intersect with one another in unpredictable ways. One sees Facebook and the way it seems to shrinks the world via overlapping ‘friendship circles’ writ large: this is apt since a theme of Egan’s book is advancing technology over the last thirty-plus years, and moreover, society’s easy acceptance of the limitations it places on communications — as if being forced to express oneself in 140 characters is liberating rather than limiting. By the final chapter of Egan’s book, set a few years into the future, text speak — txt spEk — is commonplace, and the kinds of viral marketing that Facebook et al currently use are so commonplace that everyone knows they’re being manipulated by members of the public paid to spout advertisers’ waffle, but no-one cares (“No-one says ‘viral’ any more,” scoffs one character). This isn’t quite as extreme a Like-function dystopia as that depicted in Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story (2010) in which iPhone-esque handsets rank the people in a nightclub, say, by attractiveness, conversational prowess, economic clout, etc, but it’s not far off, and is more focused on the way that particularly Myspace has affected the way music is heard, marketed, and received. At a concert for Scotty, a former star making his live comeback, paid promoters (“parrots”) in the crowd are disconcerted to realise that every other attendee is a “parrot” too.

By and large, I preferred the chapter-stories which diverged most (in geography as much as anything) from the Bennie/Sasha core to the book. (That said, the opening two chapters, in which we meet kleptomaniac Sasha, and Bennie Salazar as a music mogul who sprinkles gold leaf into his coffee, are both excellent and must have presented Egan with a slight dilemma as to which to put first.) In ‘Selling the General’, PR guru Dolly is contracted to promote a notorious Latin American dictator and turn him from a feared mass-murderer to a loveable, identifiable human being. In ‘Goodbye, My Love’, Sasha’s art historian uncle Ted is sent to Naples in pursuit of his runaway niece; he has his own reasons for taking on this ‘assignment’ and is disappointed when he by coincidence manages to find Sasha after all. Boht these are workable standalone stories, and both so good, compact and clever, fresh and insightful, that I had to put the book down after reading each of them, not wanting to rush ahead to the succeeding chapters.

On the other hand, some left me cold; Bennie Salazar’s time living in a Stepford-esque town of try-hard model wives and model homes didn’t work for me, and journalist Jules Jones’s account of meeting (and molesting) film star Kitty Jones (who’s later drafted in as a trophy-girlfriend for the dictator in ‘Selling the General’) feels like it’s trying too hard. Oddest of all is the penultimate chapter, told by means of a Powerpoint presentation by Sasha’s daughter Alison Blake, and set in the 2020s in a post-catastrophe California desert. It’s Egan’s bravest formal decision, summarising her thesis that as communications technology advances, people less and less know how to communicate with other people themselves, as if tweeting, emailing and Powerpoint will eventually replace speech, or speech itself will become something unrecognisable (a great gag in the final chapter: one character reflects that his young daughter’s language acquisition stage involves a period of seemingly talking German).

I’m not sure, in the end, how much some of the individual story-chapters here benefit from being linked and strung together into this collection/novel. However, it’s a clever way to mimic how characters’ lives collide briefly then rebound in different directions; if the format of splintered, interrelated pieces having knock-on effects on one another sometimes feels a little piecemeal and random, that says more about the real world to which this hugely enjoyable and intelligent book holds up a mirror.

Other reading in Week #11:

Chris Elliott (ed.) The Bedside Guardian 2010 (Guardian Books)

Philip Ball The Music Instinct (Vintage)

David Shields Reality Hunger (Penguin)

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