Review: A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

I loved this book.  Each chapter is sort of its own story, told from a different character’s point of view, with characters intersecting throughout the book in various ways.  One review I read described it as a book of short stories, and for that reason I almost didn’t buy it.  But these aren’t short stories at all.  The book really tells one cohesive story, it just jumps around a LOT in place and time, and some characters return again and again while others appear in one or two chapters.

The book starts with Sasha, a woman in her twenties who on a first date compulsively steals the wallet of a woman in the bathroom, then back at her apartment goes through the wallet of her date after sleeping with him.  Something about Sasha is incredibly sad – she is in therapy for her kleptomania and obviously troubled although you don’t know why.  We meet her again and again throughout the book, seeing her through many different eyes.  That’s part of what makes this book a fun read.

The book covers a time span from around the late 60s to sometime in the near future.  It’s not chronological, but it’s never hard to figure out when you are reading. Her descriptions are so vivid, and her characters are so rooted in whatever age they are. It’s easy to tell if you’re reading from the perspective of a teenager, a twentysomething, or a middle-aged adult.

The title refers to the passing of time.  One of the characters says “Time is a Goon” – it’s not entirely clear what he means but it becomes clear as you read the book why time is a “goon” – as we age, we give up our ideals, our passions and our craziness, and that’s a loss – but we can also make our lives better and meaningful in ways we didn’t expect in our teens and twenties.

A lot of the characters are somehow part of the music industry, and music is a perfect illustration of how we change as we age.  Her younger, teenage characters are interested in music in a very raw emotional way, like banging out loud punk music.  At first music is passion – then her older characters are interested in music more as a career.  Her characters wrestle with what it means to be an artist, to be successful, or to sell out your ideals.  And even though it sounds simplistic, there are no pat answers.  Some characters find success in their own way, others do not, but very few of them age in the way they expect.

The book really resonated because I’ll be forty soon, and that is something I’m struggling to accept.  The book made me think a lot about the twenty-year old me versus the (nearly) forty-year old me.  What are the differences, and what stayed the same?  What’s important and real, and what’s fantasy?

The twenty-year old me thought she’d never care about money, and the (nearly) forty-year old me has a comfortable income at a job I (mostly) hate.  The younger me didn’t think I’d end up in the suburbs in a “packaged” housing development, and here I am.  The younger me wanted to bang my head, rage against the machine, and so on… remember the Weird Al song, “I’ll be Mellow When I’m Dead”? (If you do, you’re my age.) Somewhere along the line I traded smoking, drinking and rock concerts for yoga and organic foods.  I drink wine now instead of Jack & Cokes. I’m married, have two cats, and a typical weekend night is dinner at home with my husband and watching a movie.

But that said, I don’t think I sold out.  My work is meaningful (even if I mostly hate it); I didn’t go work in some corporate firm.  I love my husband.  I still vote Democrat.  I try to be a good sister, daughter, wife.  I didn’t have kids because people thought I should.  I still want to see the world.  I still like rock music.  And I’m happier than I was in my twenties.

Egan focuses not only on how WE change as we age, but how time changes culture and communications.  One of my favorite parts of the book happens in present time, through the eyes of a child who writes using Powerpoint instead of regular text.  At first this drove me crazy and yet somehow this series of powerpoint slides starts to tell a story, and it’s a moving one about her family and her autistic brother – and it seems that even text is sort of outdated, because future generations will communicate differently.  At one point in the near future a character says that the younger generation doesn’t get tattoos or piercings anymore, because they see how terrible it looks on all of their aging relatives.  Umm, yes, that aging relative will be me at some point.

Another character, in the early nineties, is using email for the first time, before anyone else – and he says, in the future, no one will be able to be lost — technology will prevent it.  Of course it’s easy to write from today’s perspective and imagine a prediction like that.  But it’s also interesting to think about — in the sixties and seventies you could be lost.  Today, how much harder is that?  I can’t even imagine what life is like for today’s teenagers, or tomorrow’s, where everything you do plays out on the internet for everyone else.

It’s strange – my own teenage life seems as recent to me as yesterday, and here I am on the cusp of forty.  And if I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a teenager… well, time is a Goon.

  5 comments for “Review: A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

  1. July 28, 2010 at 12:57 am

    This was a really interesting glimpse at how you related to this book. I enjoyed reading what you wrote!

  2. July 31, 2010 at 11:15 am

    You did a great job of analyzing and presenting the various perspectives of this book. It was not an easy book and took longer to read, because of the shifts in perspective (for me).

    But the overall portrayal of the passage of time was excellent.

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