Constable & Robinson (2011).
This fictional novel by Jennifer Egan is an insight into American life from the 1960’s onwards. A kaleidoscope of relationships, strong personalities and memories all jolt back and forth in time. Themes covered in the book include family dysfunction, communication breakdown, desire and love, death and ageing. All of these grim topics exist easily alongside riotously funny satire.
The title ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’ suggests slightly menacing subject matter, but this isn’t a gangster novel. The meaning becomes clear, when a character in the novel says: ”Time’s a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?”.
The characters all go through a terrible adult teething period of the late teens and early 20’s, when their emotional bruises, disappointments, fears, and pathos all seem to explode. This is when an individuals’ own dreams and the world outside, either coalesce or break apart like oil and water. It’s about the decisions that people make when they’re young that continue to be carried on the mind and body like tattoos afterwards. This sweeping epic novel of the 20th Century charts how decisions by loosely connected people have a ripple effect across decades; moulding and morphing other people’s destinies.
Goon Squad spans various decades. From 1970’s San Francisco, to 90’s New York, to a grim Orwellian vision of California sometime in the 2020’s. Sideline characters all get their time in the sun, and reveal their foibles and mental ticks in a way that’s completely irresistible.
The prose rockets along like a painfully beautiful musical composition that could either be classical, punk or over-produced pop. A Visit from the Goon Squad is completely unconventional in structure and has a lot in common with the Internet’s non-linearity.
In the final chapter, set in the not too distant future of 2020, Egan uses text speak between characters. Abbreviation is turned on its head in a disturbing, humorous way. ”If thr r children, thr mst b a fUtr, rt?”
This would probably be the first novel ever created that features a PowerPoint presentation as a chapter. Egan uses this weird medium to demonstrate that communication is always faulty and partial. There’s gaps between what people say and what they actually mean.
The language is rich, alive and visceral. With the feeling as a reader that you’re eavesdropping on a juicy conversation somewhere. Perhaps a NYC subway train; a trucker’s radio bandwidth; or standing in line at a metal gig in the early 80’s.
The characters are as confused, contradictory and as lovably full of shit as anybody you would encounter on the street. It’s classic American satire in same vein as Don De Lillo’s ‘Great Jones Street’. It won the Pulitzer Prize too! So set aside a good few hours with copious amounts of tea, a comfy sofa, and prepare to have your hair blown back.