What an exhilarating, aching, mind-blowing dance to the music of time this book is.
Jennifer Egan's A Visit From the Goon Squad mashes up experimental technique with rock-solid realism to create a book that is at once a joyful blast of youth and an unsettling evocation of that universal phenomenon of middle age: Wait a minute, how the hell did we get old?
In structure, Goon Squad vibrates somewhere between novel and collection of linked short stories. Its cast of characters scatters and rebounds and intertwines in unexpected ways over 50 years, from San Francisco to New York City, with detours to Italy, Africa and elsewhere.
There's nothing linear about the way Egan dishes up their lives. Most of the chapters, each of which can stand alone, touch in some way on two recurring characters, Sasha Grady and Bennie Salazar.
We first meet Sasha in her 30s, not long after the turn of the 21st century. In a chapter called "Found Objects," she relates to her therapist a blind date during which she struggles with her compulsion to steal random objects: an untended wallet, a plumber's screwdriver, a child's dropped scarf. She won't prove an easy character to like — she is, after all, the sort of person who orders a Melon Madness Martini — but watching the changes she goes through is fascinating.
In "The Gold Cure," one of Sasha's phases finds her working as an assistant to Bennie, a job that began at the height of his career as a record producer in the 1990s. We meet him on the painful slide down from that height, as technology alters an art and business he has loved since he was a boy: "The problem was precision, perfection; the problem was digitalization, which sucked the life out of everything that got smeared through its microscopic mesh. Film, photography, music: dead. An aesthetic holocaust. Bennie knew better than to say this stuff aloud."
Bennie's attitudes will change; he is nothing if not adaptable. But Egan also takes us back to where his joy in music began, in his teens in San Francisco, where he's part of a tight-knit group of friends on the fringes of the punk rock scene in the early '80s. In "Ask Me If I Care," she nails the ecstasy of creating music and captures the pangs of first love in the words of Rhea, one of Bennie's friends: "Jocelyn knows I'm waiting for Bennie. But Bennie is waiting for Alice, who's waiting for Scotty, who's waiting for Jocelyn, who's known Scotty the longest and makes him feel safe. . . . Jocelyn loves Scotty back, but she isn't in love with him. Jocelyn is waiting for Lou, an adult man who picked her up hitchhiking. . . . No one is waiting for me. In this story, I'm the girl no one is waiting for."
We move backward into Sasha's childhood and youth as well, and forward through her and Bennie's relationships, marriages and parenthood. But Goon Squad can also bounce minor characters off into surprising paths. That "adult man" named Lou whom Jocelyn was waiting for is a conspicuously rich, enormously egotistical record mogul who gives Bennie his start but also leaves a widening wake of teenage lovers, bitter ex-wives and angry, abandoned children. Two of those children try to win Lou's love in "Safari," while two of those once-teenage lovers offer him a moment of dying grace in "You (Plural)."
While Bennie is trying to fit into a posh suburb in "A to B," his brother-in-law, Jules, gets out of prison after assaulting a young movie star he was supposed to be interviewing, which leads us to Jules' account of that event, "Forty-Minute Lunch: Kitty Jackson Opens Up About Love, Fame, and Nixon!" — a brilliant satire of celebrity journalism — as well as to "Selling the General," the chilling account of Kitty's twisted redemption.
Egan doesn't settle for just bringing Sasha, Bennie and cohorts into the present; she imagines them another 15 or 20 years into the future. Some of the details of that future are ironic; for example, young people avoid tattoos and piercings like the plague. "And who could blame them, Alex thought, after watching three generations of flaccid tattoos droop like moth-eaten upholstery over poorly stuffed biceps and saggy asses?"
Others are sharp and all-too-believable projections, like golf courses and lawns returned to desert in Southern California, outdoor concerts swarmed by terrorist-patrol helicopters in Manhattan, and electronic communication so ubiquitous people feel uncomfortable talking face to face and prefer to "T" while they're sitting right next to each other. An entire chapter, "Great Rock and Roll Pauses," is a PowerPoint presentation on family dynamics assembled by Sasha's 12-year-old daughter; it may seem like a gimmick but proves to be quietly poignant.
In the book's future, 15 years of war have brought on a baby boom, and toddlers are reviving the moribund music business. "Now that Starfish, or kiddie handsets, were ubiquitous, any child who could point was able to download music — the youngest buyer on record being a three-month-old in Atlanta, who'd purchased a song by Nine Inch Nails called Ga-ga."
Imagining the future, though, is something Egan's characters are always doing: "You look over at Drew, squinting in the sun, and for a second the future tunnels out and away, some version of 'you' at the end of it, looking back. And right then you feel it — what you've seen in people's faces on the street — a swell of movement, like an undertow, rushing you toward something you can't quite see." In A Visit From the Goon Squad, the future is just as amazing, just as present as the past.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.