Geoffrey Fox

Reflections & Inquiries

They’re out to get you!


A Visit from the Goon SquadA Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An overarching story of changing times and failed aspirations is constructed of many much smaller, intimately observed episodes of a dozen or more characters in and around the music business. Their lives sometimes just brush against one another, or can intersect with life-altering consequences, creating the weft running through the warp of time. Each episode is a self-enclosed chapter, not immediately connected to the one that follows either in time, or place, or cast of characters. They occur between the 1970s and the near future, in different parts of the U.S. (the Manhattan streetscape is the most vivid), in a forest in Kenya, and some unnamed country ruled by a disgusting, obese and cruel dictator called “the general”. More interesting, keeping the reader alert, are the sharp shifts of narrative voice, tense and imagery.
Some of these literary experiments are much more successful than others, though all are cleverly written. The weaker ones include the visit to that genocidal general, who is nothing more than a caricature meant to demonstrate how low a publicist can go when she needs to please a client, and the surprising pages of color slides by a child with her comments on her parents (whom we have seen at much earlier moments in their lives).
Mostly, though, the shifts in voice, time and perspective are effective, revealing lives from several aspects as well as at different stages of life. Most memorable to me is the Kenya jungle safari, as seen by the young female graduate student accompanying the much older powerful recording executive and his son and daughter (who is too close in age to her father’s new lover), and the handsome Kikuyu playing a savage for the tourists, crazed American rock musicians, and a steely, attractive white hunter — the sexual tension among these characters reaches a near explosion.
Having created so many scenes with so many characters and their dramatic failures to achieve the lives they imagine, the author seeks closure in a final chapter set in the near future, 2021 or 2022 apparently, in an oppressive Manhattan patrolled by police or army helicopters. There, young people have given up smoking, swearing, body-piercing and tattoos, and consider notions of “corruption” or “purity” antiquarian because all that matters is your “reach”, which means how many people you can touch and move to attend a concert (or, I suppose, vote for Trump or anybody else), primarily through adroit texting of your “friends” — which is one of the words that can no longer be used innocently, but always within quotation marks to demonstrate its irony.
Those younger people are the only ones who have not yet succumbed to “the goon squad”, the ravages of time — but you know it’s going to get them.

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