Thursday, March 31, 2011

Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad

I collect rock fiction.  Marcelle Clements's Rock Me,  Sylvie Simmons's Too Weird for Ziggy, Francesca Lia's Dangerous Angels.  It's typical of me that I read about rock music without actually listening to it. There is no simultaneous reading and listening.

I did not read Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad until it won The National Book Critics Circle Award and made the long list for the Orange Prize. A double prize thing.  Why not before?  Because I had a bad experience with Egan's Look at Me.  I read it addictively, as though it were an unusually well-written trash novel, but I loathed the emptiness of the characters, and couldn't care about Charlotte, a fashion model whose face is destroyed in an accident. Mary Gaitskill recreated that same territory in Veronica, another novel about a fashion model, and one that worked better for me.

Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad is what I now deem a typical Egan multi-layered novel.  A Visit is fast-paced, well-written, and easy to read. Her characters are sociopaths, narcissists, double-dealing, frantically falling, originally about music, but making concessions and wanting money, struggling in middle age, sometimes bought. Related to rock or bands or music in some way, they are still capitalists.  Anyone with a moral code is quickly out of the loop. 

"Time is a goon," says an aging rock star, Bosco, who wants to be filmed on a tour 20 years after his success, when he's sick, old, and unattractive.   Nobody believes in him.  But the time goon thing begins to work.  It is possible to get second chances as one gets older.  

The novel goes back and forth in time, a braid of punk rock-related stories, profiles, pseudo-journalistic pieces with footnotes a la David Foster Wallace, a power point presentation, and an SF futuristic marketing chapter in which everybody "ts" (even shorter messages than texts and twitters) and words like "story" are considered "constructs" because they have no meaning anymore.   Egan tries on a lot of styles and shows she can do them all.

One of the central characters is Bennie, a record producer and owner of his own label.  He rises from nothing and falls and rises again.  Perhaps because he's from nothing he's one of the more normal characters in the book. In middle age he is anxious, divorced, disillusioned with the music industry, and taking gold flake as a strange remedy for impotence.  But in high school in San Francisco Bennie played guitar in a band called the Flaming Dildos, and we get to know his old friends.  They're snorting coke and giving head and...  Bennie is the smart one, the one who can negotiate and deal.

Egan begins the novel with Bennie's assistant, Sasha, a sociopathic thief.  She is in the bathroom at a club and steals a wallet.  "It was easy for Sasha to realize, looking back, that the peeing woman's blind trust had provoked her."  Yes, that's Egan's book in a nutshell.  Normalcy provokes her. It turns out the woman is from out of town.   Sasha has no conscience, and though she gives the wallet back because her date, Alex, who plays a key part later in the book, is furious about New York dishonesty, no one ever knows she was the thief.  But to her therapist she talks about the wallet and admits she doesn't think about people, though he keeps trying to say she has compassion.  The word "steal" has no effect on her.  She knows the outcome of therapy will be that she gets well, so she goes along with whatever he says.  Later in the novel, when we see her from the outside, through other people's eyes, she seems rather nice and sympathetic.  I guess what Egan sees is that they're all creepy inside.

The characters do change over the years.  Sasha turns out to be a good mom.  Yes, I've said it.  Can you believe it?  But I think Egan is also showing us she can do that kind of writing.  She COULD write a realistic novel about nice people.  She just doesn't choose to.

In the last chapter, you realize the depth of Egan's pessimism.  Alex, so impassioned in the beginning, agrees to do some "blind team marketing" for Bennie, creating a buzz about a rock star he doesn't believe in, and enlisting other people to create a buzz online about an event.  For money.  His idealism is gone.  And his wife, who doesn't know he's done this, has heard all about the event and then enjoys it.  Her mind set has been assured ahead of time.  The event is sold:  she's a victim. Or was Bennie right to sell it first?  Or is all this "selling" right-wing?

So hours of addictive reading--I could never possibly read this satire again.  It seems to me there's nothing much here.  There is zero idealism, zero goodness, zero anything.  But some of the former punks do rebel.  And Bennie--but what's with that marketing event?  We don't have any individuality or privacy left.  All our information is on the internet. For corporations.  Egan says so.

I guess what bothers me is that Egan seems not to care.   It's a satire and yet...  She's very smart, but...

It's a bit like Gary Shteyngart's novel--at the end.  But his point of view is more critical.

A Visit from the Goon Squad is amoral.

I'd have to read it again to see how the braid of relationships work. But I really didn't like it, so I won't.


mohit said...

Must be an enjoyable read A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. loved the way you wrote it. I find your review very genuine and orignal, this book is going in by "to read" list.

Frisbee said...

It's certainly popular and I hope you'll enjoy it. She's a very good writer.

Buried In Print said...

I saved this one to read when I'd finished it myself, so I'm a bit late in replying, but glad to see what you thought.

I agree that the characters weren't very likeable, but I did find them believable, and I think the fact that it took me weeks to finish this (no fault of the book: that's on me) meant that I found that a little less overbearing.

Or maybe I was simply distracted by the effort of drawing the connections between them as I muddled along. ::grin::

I would, however, definitely reread -- not so much because I'd enjoy their company, but because I think the way she wanders across time with them is fascinating.

Frisbee said...

Not my fave book, but I loved your review. She's a good writer. I thought it fell apart in the last couple of chapters, but as you say it is fascinating to wander with her characters over time.