A Visit from the Goon Squad
"[Charlie] takes hold of his hands. As they move together, Rolph feels his self-consciousness miraculously fade, as if he is growing up right there on the dance floor, becoming a boy who dances with girls like his sister. Charlie feels it, too. In fact, this particular memory is one she'll return to again and again, for the rest of her life, long after Rolph has shot himself in the head in their father's house at twenty-eight: her brother as a boy, hair slicked flat, eyes sparkling, shyly learning to dance."
I was impressed with the confidence of the prose in Jennifer Egan's novel. It is told in a post-modern style with a narrative that unfolds over the course of self-contained stories within each chapter. The episodes meld together through connections that form a cohesive narrative. The stories do not occur chronologically, but rather they jump through time showing different periods from the past of the 1970s to the future of the 2020s. The novel is also split into two parts—A and B—which echoes the two sides of an album.
Several characters appear in more than one story, and through the ways in which they appear at different points in time, their narratives become clear. One of the stories is told as a power-point presentation. The theme of popular music and popular culture in general pervades the novel. This was an aspect that made me uncomfortable as I did not recognize a lot of the references (apparently I do not share the narrator's taste in music). There is a strong critique of popular culture. This criticism is made primarily through exploration of the music industry, but film, photography, and journalism are also investigated in the novel. Egan draws attention to the way in which trends come and go, and the effects of these cultural shifts.
Other themes include the issue of identity, as Egan explores the extent to which identity is inherent and the ways in which it is assumed. The novel’s characters struggle to find meaning and authenticity in their lives, and they use different methods to discover, create, and escape their identities. Above all is an in depth exploration of the passage of time, the effects of aging on individual lives, and the longing for the past through memory. The novel’s title even speaks directly to the theme of time. Bosco, the former guitarist of The Conduits, who has become fat, alcoholic, and suicidal, states, “Time’s a goon, right?” Traditionally, a goon was an individual who inflicts fear and violence on others to achieve a desired end. Utilizing the word “goon” illuminates Egan’s understanding of time as an unforgiving force that shapes the novel’s characters in various, and often unpleasant, ways.
This novel won awards and praise from many. I found it a challenging read that proved uniquely interesting.
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