Wednesday 11 October 2017

Review by Robert Richardson of “A Visit from the Goon Squad” by Jennifer Egan

In Britain, the term ‘goon’ tends to invoke a 1950s radio comedy show, but in America it means a thug. Jennifer Egan’s metaphorical use of its American meaning, in her 2011 Pulitzer Prize winner, is revealed by Bosco, a fading rock star, who associates it with time and its humiliations that led to his present grotesque state.

Bosco inhabits one of the chapters, each of which can be read as either a short story or part of an innovative novel. For the latter we must accept digressions: characters who are minor in the “greater” novel are substantial within their given chapters.  The practice of providing a final chapter to satisfy the reader’s desire to know the futures awaiting characters is occasionally sprung by Egan early on, and this can be poignant, since time, the goon, has a habit of beating up youthful energy and aspirations. Egan might be seen as attempting to weaken the brutal grip of time by rejecting a linear narrative, shuffling the phases of her leading characters’ lives.

Although there are loose ends, there are also connections between characters across the chapters, and two characters in particular are given more weight: Sasha and Bennie. This helps an overall narrative to be perceived. Sasha, a kleptomaniac with dysfunctional teenage years, including a time living with criminals in Naples, finds a stability of sorts as an assistant to Bennie, a New York based successful manager and producer of rock bands. Bennie’s younger self appears in 1980 as a member of the Flaming Dildos punk band in his native San Francisco.

Egan adopts an array of techniques in a refreshing way. There are chapters in the first person, third and, more daringly, second, and both past and present tenses are brought into play. What might have been a mess is not: it hangs together because of Egan’s command and panache. Her stylistic adventures are not virtuosity for its own sake, they seem relevant to how we currently experience others through a variety of ways: in person; through texts; on social media etc. This recognition of cultural change, especially that concerned with technology and communication, is reflected in the penultimate chapter: a series of PowerPoint slides (and not just a few, they take up 74 pages in the paperback edition). These are the work of Alison, the twelve year old daughter of Sasha, now married to Drew, a doctor who appears in an earlier chapter during Sasha’s student days. The slides are an attempt by Alison to make sense of her mother, father, brother and herself.

The final chapter is set in the near future (the 2020s) and has a slightly science fiction atmosphere. Egan satirises our growing dependency on mobile phones, referred to as handsets, and texting. Infantilism is literal, with babies pointing at images on handsets being accepted as a significant arbiter of cultural value. As an antidote to this, Bennie is promoting, albeit through digital media, an old performer, Scotty, who was once a fellow member of the Flaming Dildos. A crowd gathers to see and hear this authentic representative of the pre-handset world. His songs, though, are infantile too, with titles such as ‘I Am a Little Lamb.’ Egan seems to be predicting our immediate future will be a cul-de-sac of superficiality.

Nevertheless, there are grounds for optimism. Time, the goon, might also be benign. Remember Bosco, the decayed rock star bloated by the drugs needed for his diseased body? He is encountered about midway through, planning a suicide tour and hoping it will culminate with dying on stage. We later learn that he survives, recovers, and ends up owning a dairy farm.

About the reviewer
Robert Richardson is a visual artist and writer. His work is included in Artists’ Postcards: A Compendium (edited by Jeremy Cooper, published by Reaktion Books, London). He has recently exhibited online with the Paris/Barcelona based Corridor Elephant publishing project, and is a member of the Biennale Austria association of contemporary artists. In 2014, his solo exhibition TextSpaces was exhibited at Eugen Gomringer’s Kunsthaus Rehau in Germany. He is also the co-editor, with William Pratt, of Homage to Imagism (AMS Press, New York). 

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