It’s rare that having finished a book I’ll turn straight back to page one to re-read it. But A Visit From The Goon Squad deserves re-reading especially as I raced through it so quickly the first time. The book is difficult to define – one could call it either a novel or a collection of short stories, the narrative voice changes constantly and it is not chronological – but the issue of time is the theme connecting each section. How time creeps up on us all, how our dreams and expectations are changed by time, and how, at the end of this virtuoso novel, almost no-one ends up better for wear after time has had its way. It can be best summarised by a character called Bosco who asks, “How did I go from being a rock star to being a fat fuck no one cares about?”
Benny Salazar, bass player and music producer, owns a record label, Sow’s Ear in New York, and Sasha is his assistant. Set in the environs of the music industry in the States in the 70s and 80s, the book explores both of their lives plus a host of minor characters, all of whom are connected to Sasha or Benny.
A Visit From The Goon Squad is similar to Short Cuts by Raymond Carver in that a big cast of characters each take their turn at the centre of the stage. A fleeting reference to a character in the first pages provides the basis for a story midway through the book told in the second person by Rob as he deals with the aftermath of his suicide attempt. Lou is a sleazy music producer who seduces Benny’s friend, then becomes Benny’s mentor and later still his story provides a haunting chapter set on Safari in Africa.
Sasha’s life is seen through her own eyes as she comes to terms with her kleptomania on her therapist’s couch; then from the viewpoint of Scotty, Benny’s school friend who visits Benny’s office and sees Sasha on reception; through the eyes of her Uncle who is sent to Italy to find her when she goes missing as a teenager; from the viewpoint of Benny’s socially aspirational wife; and from the viewpoint of her own child, which is written as a PowerPoint presentation towards the end of the book.
The PowerPoint angle is a brave move which a less accomplished writer might not pull off but which in Ms. Egan’s assured hands is both moving and an interesting commentary on the ubiquity of technology in our lives. The narrative pinballs back and forth in time and around the globe with stories taking place in Italy, Africa, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco. Narrative voice changes, moods change and writing style changes with each chapter. It could have been a mess but Ms. Egan makes it all look effortless and that’s the real beauty of it.