When I first heard about Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, my immediate thought was, “I should know what good squad is.” It sounded like something my dad would say, and given that the book was about the cultural zeitgeist of the music industry, I figured it had to be a reference to the world of “used-to-be cool and still struggling” people.
But I should have known better from my days of being a passionate disciple of American history and more recently, my exploration of the museums of Detroit. A goon squad literally refers to a group of thugs, taken from the early 20th century mercenaries hired to break up union strikes. I was close, though; whatever is conjured by the idea of a goon squad is not something pleasant.
The book begins with a chapter about Sasha exploring her kleptomania with her psychiatrist. She is the long-running assistant to famous music mogul, Bennie Salazar, and their relationship, while mutually dependent, is also somewhat predatory. Both characters use each other in a strange fashion that makes an interesting exploration of the entertainment industry and the strange dynamics of power in a world obsessed with the latest and the greatest.
However, this is not a book about their relationship or their development as people. It is about the cursory people dispersed throughout life who collectively influence one another. Each chapter presents the viewpoint of a different character, who is loosely related to the last speaker. Egan moves from Sasha to Bennie to some high school friend of Bennie’s to some random people and well, I can’t tell you who ends the book, since that would ruin it.
Through the couple hundred pages, she draws upon various threads she introduced in a previous chapter, and it is through them, we see how people evolve their sense of image. People have described it as a collection of short stories, but it is too linear and cohesive for a chapter to stand alone. What is novel and innovative, however, is Egan’s use of powerpoint slides as narrative in one chapter.
But back to the story. The most central and developed character is Bennie, and it is through him, as a punk in 1980s San Francisco, and then as a slowly burnt-out record producer and mogul in NYC, that we see how the music industry has evolved and the struggles all sorts of people have when their career or image is based soley on immediacy and the next big thing.
Just as Bennie once defined himself as a punk in his youth in order to present a certain image, he then becomes obsessed with defining himself by the traditional success of a privileged suburban neighborhood. Egan is great at capturing the sense of a cultural parody. She describes Bennie’s wife, trying to fit in their new neighborhood:
It wore on Stephanie more than she’d expected, dropping off Chris for kindergarten, waving or smiling at some blond mother releasing blond progeny from her SUV or Hummer, and getting back a pinched, quizzical smile whose translation seemed to be: Who are you again? How could they not know, after months of daily mutual sightings? They were snobs or idiots or both, Stephanie told herself, yet she was inexplicably crushed by their coldness.
Egan does a great job trying to create the sense of zeitgeist in her descriptions throughout the narrative, but it often too heavy handed. She keeps pushing into cliche as she ladels out overwrought stereotypes in her descriptions. Stephanie is the only brunette in the neighborhood, the only one with a tattoo. Somehow this makes her a badass trying to defeat the privileged society that she and Bennie have bought into. Bennie uses Sasha’s breasts as a way for him to judge his virality. Unfortunately, Egan’s characters are so straightforward that their only motives are those on the page and it becomes tedious to read about another older powerful guy wanting to sleep with a young girl or some small town guy feeling lost in the big city of New York.
But there are moments that Egan engages her reader. She asks with a sense of wryness, “When does a fake Mohawk become a real Mohawk? Who decides? How do you know if it’s happened?” There are the occasional moment like this one that asks the reader to critique their own ideas of image. She is funny in her philosophical turns and they delve into interesting segues. Thinking about a more modern application of hipsters, one could also ask, “When are tight pants too tight?” These one liners over add a lightness and an insight into culture and the public obsession with making a statement. But these occasional moments of levity or critique do nothing for the story that is based on flat characters, only interested in being vehicles for stereotypes of decades. They are comparable in their evocations of a specific moment as the stock Halloween costumes that are supposed to represent an entire decade like a 1960s hippie or the 1990s grunge groupie.
When Egan’s descriptions are more nuanced and based more in reality, such as the punk clubs, she excels. I found myself interested in reading about the dark clubs, laced with cocaine, bad music, and too many Doc Martins. But the problem with writing in such short sections and jumping from seemingly random characters is that we never understand the greater significance of Sasha’s kleptomania and we never are allowed to see Bennie’s transformation from loner to a successful music mogul to a washed-up producer. Instead, we learn about surrounding people’s problems as if we are reading a collection of case studies.
Unfortunately, for a book that won this past year’s Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, the book is merely a goon squad itself, barraging the reader into thinking that this is somehow interesting or good literature. I had high hopes for the book after such good press and I was genuinely interested in reading a book parodying the world of music. But ultimately, I found it another book empty of anything more than a few good lines and rife with the stock images that people use in order to become a “cultural zeitgeist” themselves. It was almost “Rothian” in its obsession with itself.