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Visit from the Goon Squad (Egan)

A Visit from the Goon Squad 
Jennifer Egan, 2010
Knopf Doubleday
288 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780307592835


Summary
Moving from San Francisco in the 1970s to a vividly imagined New York City sometime after 2020, Jennifer Egan portrays the interlacing lives of men and women whose desires and ambitions converge and collide as the passage of time, cultural change, and private experience define and redefine their identities.

Bennie Salazar, a punk rocker in his teenage years, is facing middle age as a divorced and disheartened record producer. His cool, competent assistant, Sasha, keeps everything under control—except for her unconquerable compulsion to steal. Their diverse and diverting memories of the past and musings about the present set the stage for a cycle of tales about their friends, family, business associates, and lovers.

A high school friend re-creates the wild, sexually charged music scene of Bennie’s adolescence and introduces the wealthy, amoral entertainment executive Lou Kline, who becomes Bennie’s mentor and eventually faces the consequences of his casual indifference to the needs of his mistresses, wives, and children. Scotty, a guitarist in Bennie’s long-defunct band, emerges from life lived on the fringes of society to confront Bennie in his luxurious Park Avenue office, while Bennie’s once-punk wife, Stephanie, works her way up in the plush Republican suburb where they live.

Other vignettes explore the experiences and people that played a role in Sasha’s life. An uncle searching for Sasha when she runs away at seventeen becomes aware of  his own disillusionments and disappointments as he tries to comfort her. Her college boyfriend describes a night of drug-fueled revelry that comes to a shocking end.  And her twelve-year-old daughter contributes a clever PowerPoint presentation of the family dynamics—including hilariously pointed summaries of her mother’s “Annoying Habit #48” and “Why Dad Isn’t Here.”

From a trenchant look at the vagaries of the music business and the ebb and flow of celebrity to incisive dissections of marriage and family to a provocative vision of where America is headed, A Visit from the Goon Squad is unnerving, exhilarating, and irresistible. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Birth—September 6, 1962
Where—Chicago, Illinois, USA
Raised—San Francisco, California 
Education—University of Pennsylvania; Cambridge
  University (UK) 
Awards—Caroll Kowal Journalism Award; NAMI
  Media Award for Science & Helath Reporting
Currently—lives in Brooklyn, New York


Jennifer Egan was born in Chicago and raised in San Francisco. She is the author of The Invisible Circus, a novel which became a feature film starting Cameron Diaz in 2001, Look at Me, a finalist for the National Book Award in fiction in 2001, Emerald City and Other Stories and, most recently, the The Keep, which was a national bestseller. A Visit From the Goon Squad, was published in 2010 and highlighted on the cover of the New York Times Book Review.

Her short stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Harpers, Granta, McSweeney’s and other magazines. She is a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction, and a Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Fellowship at the New York Public Library. Her non-fiction articles appear frequently in the New York Times Magazine.

Her 2002 cover story on homeless children received the Carroll Kowal Journalism Award, and her most recent article, "The Bipolar Kid," received a 2009 NAMI Outstanding Media Award for Science and Health Reporting from the National Alliance on Mental Illness. (From the publisher.)



Book Reviews 
Whether this tough, uncategorizable work of fiction is a novel, a collection of carefully arranged interlocking stories or simply a display of Ms. Egan's extreme virtuosity, the same characters pop up in different parts of it.... Taking some of her inspiration from Proust's In Search of Lost Time as well as some from "The Sopranos," [Egan] creates a set of characters with assorted links to the music business and lets time have its way with them. Virtually no one in this elaborately convoluted book winds up the better for wear. But Ms. Egan can be such a piercingly astute storyteller that the exhilaration of reading her outweighs the bleak destinies she describes.
Janet Maslin - New York Times


Although shredded with loss, A Visit From the Goon Squad is often darkly, rippingly funny. Egan possesses a satirist's eye and a romance novelist's heart. Certainly the targets are plentiful in rock 'n' roll and public relations, the twinned cultural industries around which the book coalesces during the period from the early '80s to an imagined 2019 or so. No one is beyond the pale of her affection; no one is spared lampooning. Often she embraces and spears her subjects at the same time.
Will Blythe - New York Times Book Review


If Jennifer Egan is our reward for living through the self-conscious gimmicks and ironic claptrap of postmodernism, then it was all worthwhile. Her new novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad, is a medley of voices…scrambled through time and across the globe with a 70-page PowerPoint presentation reproduced toward the end. I know that sounds like the headache-inducing, aren't-I-brilliant tedium that sends readers running to nonfiction, but Egan uses all these stylistic and formal shenanigans to produce a deeply humane story about growing up and growing old in a culture corroded by technology and marketing. And what's best, every movement of this symphony of boomer life plays out through the modern music scene, a white-knuckle trajectory of cool, from punk to junk to whatever might lie beyond. My only complaint is that A Visit From the Goon Squad doesn't come with a CD.
Ron Charles - Washington Post


Readers will be pleased to discover that the star-crossed marriage of lucid prose and expertly deployed postmodern switcheroos that helped shoot Egan to the top of the genre-bending new school is alive in well in this graceful yet wild novel. We begin in contemporaryish New York with kleptomaniac Sasha and her boss, rising music producer Bennie Salazar, before flashing back, with Bennie, to the glory days of Bay Area punk rock, and eventually forward, with Sasha, to a settled life. By then, Egan has accrued tertiary characters, like Scotty Hausmann, Bennie's one-time bandmate who all but dropped out of society, and Alex, who goes on a date with Sasha and later witnesses the future of the music industry. Egan's overarching concerns are about how rebellion ages, influence corrupts, habits turn to addictions, and lifelong friendships fluctuate and turn. Or as one character asks, “How did I go from being a rock star to being a fat fuck no one cares about?” Egan answers the question elegantly, though not straight on, as this powerful novel chronicles how and why we change, even as the song stays the same.
Publishers Weekly


National Book Award nominee Egan's (jenniferegan.com) fourth novel, following The Keep (2006), also available from AudioGO, received wide critical acclaim for its deft treatment of time, technology, and humanity. Here, the brilliantly structured postmodernist work receives the audio treatment. The novel skips around in time, covering several decades in the lives of a record executive/ex-rocker; his assistant, a compulsive thief; and others. The very human characters grow on one despite—or, perhaps, owing to—Egan's frequent skewering of them. Actress Roxana Ortega's narration is soothing; her steady voice gives listeners something to hold on to when chapters occasionally confuse. Ortega appears to be new to the audiobook narrating business—with more inflection she has the potential to become a popular reader. Recommended. —B. Allison Gray, Santa Barbara P.L., Goleta Branch, CA
Library Journal


"Time's a goon," as the action moves from the late 1970s to the early 2020s while the characters wonder what happened to their youthful selves and ideals. Egan (The Keep, 2006, etc.) takes the music business as a case in point for society's monumental shift from the analog to the digital age. Record-company executive Bennie Salazar and his former bandmates from the Flaming Dildos form one locus of action; another is Bennie's former assistant Sasha, a compulsive thief club-hopping in Manhattan when we meet her as the novel opens, a mother of two living out West in the desert as it closes a decade and a half later with an update on the man she picked up and robbed in the first chapter. It can be alienating when a narrative bounces from character to character, emphasizing interconnections rather than developing a continuous story line, but Egan conveys personality so swiftly and with such empathy that we remain engaged. By the time the novel arrives at the year "202-" in a bold section narrated by Sasha's 12-year-old daughter Alison, readers are ready to see the poetry and pathos in the small nuggets of information Alison arranges like a PowerPoint presentation. In the closing chapter, Bennie hires young dad Alex to find 50 "parrots" (paid touts masquerading as fans) to create "authentic" word of mouth for a concert. This new kind of viral marketing is aimed at "pointers," toddlers now able to shop for themselves thanks to "kiddie handsets"; the preference of young adults for texting over talking is another creepily plausible element of Egan's near-future. Yet she is not a conventional dystopian novelist; distinctions between the virtual and the real may be breaking down in this world, but her characters have recognizable emotions and convictions, which is why their compromises and uncertainties continue to move us. Another ambitious change of pace from talented and visionary Egan, who reinvents the novel for the 21st century while affirming its historic values.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions 
1. A Visit from the Goon Squad shifts among various perspectives, voices, and time periods, and in one striking chapter (pp. 176–251), departs from conventional narrative entirely. What does the mixture of voices and narrative forms convey about the nature of experience and the creation of memories? Why has Egan arranged the stories out of chronological sequence?

2. In “A to B” Bosco unintentionally coins the phrase “Time’s a goon” (p. 96), used again by Bennie in “Pure Language” (p.269). What does Bosco mean? What does Bennie mean? What does the author mean?

3. “Found Objects” and “The Gold Cure” include accounts of Sasha’s and Bennie’s therapy sessions. Sasha picks and chooses what she shares: “She did this for Coz’s protection and her own—they were writing a story of redemption, of fresh beginnings and second chances” (p. 7). Bennie tries to adhere to a list of no-no’s his shrink has supplied (pp. 18-19). What do the tone and the content of these sections suggest about the purpose and value of therapy? Do they provide a helpful perspective on the characters?

4. Lou makes his first appearance in “Ask Me If I Care” (pp. 30–44) as an unprincipled, highly successful businessman; “Safari” (pp. 45–63) provides an intimate, disturbing look at the way he treats his children and lover; and “You (Plural)” (pp. 64–69) presents him as a sick old man. What do his relationships with Rhea and Mindy have in common? To what extent do both women accept (and perhaps encourage) his abhorrent behavior, and why to they do so? Do the conversations between Lou and Rolph, and Rolph’s interactions with his sister and Mindy, prepare you for the tragedy that occurs almost twenty years later? What emotions does Lou’s afternoon in “You (Plural)” with Jocelyn and Rhea provoke? Is he basically the same person he was in the earlier chapters?

5. Why does Scotty decide to get in touch with Bennie? What strategies do each of them employ as they spar with each other? How does the past, including Scotty’s dominant role in the band and his marriage to Alice, the girl both men pursued, affect the balance of power? In what ways is Scotty’s belief that “one key ingredient of so-called experience is the delusional faith that it is unique and special, that those included in it are privileged and those excluded from it are missing out” (p. 74) confirmed at the meeting? Is their reunion in “Pure Language” a continuation of the pattern set when they were teenagers, or does it reflect changes in their fortunes as well as in the world around them?

6. Sasha’s troubled background comes to light in “Good-bye, My Love” (p. 157). Do Ted’s recollections of her childhood explain Sasha’s behavior? To what extent is Sasha’s “catalog of woes” representative of her generation as a whole? How do Ted’s feelings about his career and wife color his reactions to Sasha? What does the flash-forward to “another day more than twenty years after this one” (p. 175) imply about the transitory moments in our lives?

7. Musicians, groupies, and entertainment executives and publicists figure prominently in A Visit from the Goon Squad. What do the careers and private lives of Bennie, Lou, and Scotty (“X’s and O’s”; “Pure Language”); Bosco and Stephanie (“A to B”); and Dolly (“Selling the General”) suggest about American culture and society over the decades? Discuss how specific details and cultural references (e.g., names of real people, bands, and venues) add authenticity to Egan’s fictional creations.

8. The chapters in this book can be read as stand-alone stories. How does this affect the reader’s engagement with individual characters and the events in their lives? Which characters or stories did you find the most compelling? By the end, does everything fall into place to form a satisfying storyline?

9. Read the quotation from Proust that Egan uses as an epigraph (p. vii). How do Proust’s observations apply to A Visit from the Goon Squad? What impact do changing times and different contexts have on how the characters perceive and present themselves? Are the attitudes and actions of some characters more consistent than others, and if so, why?

10. In a recent interview Egan said, “I think anyone who’s writing satirically about the future of American life often looks prophetic.... I think we’re all part of the zeitgeist and we’re all listening to and absorbing the same things, consciously or unconsciously....” (Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 8, 2010). Considering current social trends and political realities, including fears of war and environmental devastation, evaluate the future Egan envisions in “Pure Language” and “Great Rock and Roll Pauses.”

11. What does “Pure Language” have to say about authenticity in a technological and digital age? Would you view the response to Bennie, Alex, and Lulu’s marketing venture differently if the musician had been someone other than Scotty Hausmann and his slide guitar? Stop/Go (from “The Gold Cure”), for example?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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