A Visit From the Goon Squad
Alfred A. Knopf: 278 pp., $25.95
Jennifer Egan's "A Visit From the Goon Squad" is a lively novel in stories about Sasha, an assistant in the music business, and her boss, Bennie Salazar. It may be the smartest book you can get your hands on this summer.
We start with Sasha, a wry 35-year-old with sticky fingers. She's extremely competent at her job, bored, nonplussed by the date who marvels at her old-style bathtub-in-the-kitchen New York apartment. Her only thrill comes from stealing; she doesn't profit from it, instead keeping her take — a wallet, a child's scarf, a seashell — as relics. She's in therapy — she knows she's in a bad way.
Punker-turned-executive Bennie Salazar is also in trouble. He's been dumped by his wife, can't seem to communicate with his son and, worst of all, has fallen out of sync with the music business. To Bennie, today's music is "[t]oo clear, too clean. The problem was precision, perfection; the problem was digitization, which sucked the life out of everything that got smeared through its microscopic mesh…. Bennie knew better than to say this stuff aloud." His failures resound in his head so loudly that he writes down a litany of humiliations, hoping to excise them.
Bennie and Sasha's intersecting paths are illuminated by the subsequent chapters. But this is an oversimplification. What follows is no set of cause-and-effect flashbacks: Scattered across time, the narrative spins freely apart, like an uncapped centrifuge.
Each chapter is told from a different character's point of view; Sasha and Bennie are pushed to the margins. Sometimes they're not even present: One chapter, set in Africa, focuses on the adolescent son of Bennie's musical mentor Lou, years before Bennie was in the picture. Another follows a disgraced publicist who used to employ Bennie's ex-wife, while a third is narrated by a college friend of Sasha's. Sound tangential? Sure, but the strategy succeeds, because these characters move so fully into center stage. Given voice, they become the main players.
These stories, even as they bend away from Sasha and Bennie, draw us in. Two teen girls' lives are irrevocably changed by the charismatic Lou, with his red convertible and purple crushed velvet bedspread. A bitter celebrity journalist writes an article — with exacting footnotes — describing his ill-fated interview with a dewy starlet. A now-obese singer, once as lithe and explosive as Iggy Pop, tries to convince his publicity team that an aggressive tour — which will probably kill him — is his only choice. An adolescent girl, a decade or more hence, does her homework in Powerpoint; the tensions between her father and brother wrench, even in a chapter written entirely in slide form.
Egan has created, instead of an arc, a narrative constellation, one in which Sasha and Bennie have weak gravitational pull. Lou, Rob, Jules, Rolph, Dolly and others each take their star turns.
Scattered across time, free of chronology, the stories in the book nevertheless have a careful and deliberate structure. The novel is divided into two parts, A and B, much like the title of the singer's new album, "A to B." "That's the question I want to hit straight on," he says. "How did I go from being a rock star to being a fat [jerk] no one cares about?" The answer isn't about a sequence of events as much as the cycle of fame into whose orbit he's swung. There are other orbits: individual tragedies and their passing, barely remembered encounters and their unexpected importance.
Yet in these cycles, the characters assert themselves. Over and over, they turn toward the sun, as if to stop time. A woman remembers when she betrayed Lou by sitting with another man on top of a pool house at sunrise. Parents, striving for balance, watch their toddler stagger along a wall of people gathered to watch the sunset. A teenaged Sasha, all but lost in a rambling Italian boarding house, counts among her meager belongings a wire she's looped across her window; when the setting sun passes through its circle, it brings an unwanted visitor a moment of surprise and delight. "See," she mutters to him, "it's mine."
Sasha's inclination to possess things that don't belong to her is not so unlike a novelist who, in rewriting another's story, can give it a new tenor, push it into a new curve on the cycle. In the novel, Sasha grabs Bennie's list of private humiliations, reading aloud, to his agony. "'Kissing Mother Superior, incompetent, hairball, poppy seeds, on the can.' … 'Not bad,' she said. 'They're titles, right?'" Once he hears his fears recast as mundane song titles, Bennie feels a sudden peace; his darkness is made light.
Kellogg is lead blogger for Jacket Copy, The Times' book blog.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times