Jennifer Egan (2010) A Visit from the Goon Squad Knopf, New York; 288 pp.; ISBN 978-0-30759283-5
This novel traces the fortunes over several decades of a group of friends whose initial common interest was punk rock. They first meet in San Francisco but eventually most of them end up in New York. Bennie is a wannabe musician with little talent and no morals, so understandably he becomes a record producer. Scotty is a punk musician and occasionally violent, but his real love is simple acoustic songs. The hot music manager that everyone wants to know is Lou, a misogynist who likes to lord it over women and throw lavish, drug-drenched parties. Bennie worships him but the others are more ambivalent, and when we see Lou dying years later after two strokes, some of those damaged by his excess would prefer his death to be more painful.
Bennie becomes very successful, eventually owning a recording company. Like Lou, he moves from one woman to the next, fathering children along the way but not being much of a father in the process. When he sells his company and makes a lot of money, this patriarch of punk moves to a wealthy suburb and joins the local country club. In one argument he berates his wife for selling out, at the same time that he is having an affair with the blonde Republican wife of an investment banker. As he nears sixty, Bennie is seen as irrelevant in the music industry but his career gets a second wind when his old acquaintance Scotty has improbable and astounding success with a set of artless songs adored by children. Bennie is on a high and the cruel march of time is put on hold – at least for now.
Bennie’s wife Stephanie is in public relations but is shocked when an old punk rocker, overweight and in failing health, wants major publicity for a final tour. He plans to die onstage. Stephanie’s brother Jules, not the brightest of the bunch, is impressed by this and gets rewarded with exclusive rights to cover the tour. Another PR star, Stephanie’s old boss Dolly, fell from grace after a disastrous party but is back in business puffing a third world dictator. She hooks him up with a bimbo actress looking for a comeback on the big screen but when the dictator runs true to form Dolly is appalled by what she has done and gives her job up to run a deli. These anecdotes about public relations people having moral qualms were the least believable parts of the book.
The story jumps back and forth in time, and successive chapters focus on different characters. The thread that holds this often shaky arrangement together is Sasha, one of the in crowd in the early punk scene and later a long-term assistant to Bennie. She has plenty of problems – a drug habit, kleptomania and a tendency to run away. Her only close friend was Rob whom she met in college, but he died in a swimming accident. Later in life when she is married she still has Rob’s photo in her wallet.
Sasha in middle age is married to Drew and they have settled in the desert. As a young man, Drew was ambitious and set his sights on politics, but after Rob’s drowning he takes up medicine and becomes a well-respected local doctor. Yet his life with Sasha, who makes sculptures of trash as her creative outlet, is not an easy one.
Many characters drift in and out of this narrative but none of them feels well-rounded and not a single one of them is likeable. Even Dolly and Drew, who seek some redemption in ‘useful’ lives, are hopeless parents whose children grow up vapid and disconnected. This novel is a sad and damning indictment of a self-indulgent American society obsessed with money and fame. People are shallow and forgettable, using each other for selfish advantage and giving the lie to any claim of friendship. Their children are like visitors from another planet speaking some indecipherable language. The cycle of alienation rolls on and there seems to be no way out.
I read this novel twice. On first reading it felt more like a collection of linked short stories than a cohesive novel. There was also some arty showing off – Chapter 12 is wholly written as a slide presentation (though is one of the stronger chapters in terms of storyline). Coupled with the dull unmemorable characters the book was not very inspiring. But the writing was of a high standard and a lot of effort had gone into the structure, so I re-read it and this time the links between the characters were stronger and the jumps in time less distracting. The characters were still one-dimensional and boring, but maybe that is the point. Jennifer Egan won a Pulitzer Prize in 2011 for this novel – I sense that the judges recognised a finely polished mirror trained on the society in which they live.