I’ve graded a few papers in my day and written quite a few more. I’m certain that nothing elicits such a massive eye-roll from a professor more than a paper that begins with “Webster’s defines [insert topic here] as” and then proceeds to waste precious space in the paper on a definition.
Screw it. Webster’s defines “goon” as a [person] hired to terrorize opponents. In her Pulitzer Prize winning book, Jennifer Egan introduces us to Bosco, a bit character who is a former rock star looking to make a comeback. As he plans how he will show everyone how he went from “being a rock star to a fat fuck,” he says drily, “Time’s a goon, right?”
Indeed it is.
What Egan does in “A Visit from the Goon Squad” is nothing short of brilliant. Her novel has won the National Book Critics Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and The Morning News’ Tournament of Books (Thanks, Jen, for the tip on that one!). On the surface, the themes of this book are clear: losing one’s youth can be traumatic and depressing; relationships are complicated and they wax and wane; and life is mysterious and full of unusual coincidences. But what made this book so remarkable was Egan’s technique.
The book does not follow a traditional timeline. From one chapter to the next, the reader could be jolted 20 years in the future or the past. There are many, many characters that appear and then resurface later, but their role may switch from central to supporting to cameo. These jolts through time are difficult for the reader, and I suspect this is intentional. We see characters in different places geographically: New York, California, Europe, and we see them in different places mentally: hopeful, broken, searching, and even steady.
We met each character briefly but with enough detail to allow us to relate or empathize. (For a full rundown of characters, see the third paragraph of this New York Times article.) Like others, I wanted more at the end of the book, but again, I suspect that’s intentional, too. There’s a little peek into Egan’s vision of the future, but to me, the setting took a backseat to the characters.
Then Egan delivers a knockout punch with a 70-page PowerPoint presentation that at first is questionable and by the end is stunning. How she managed to write a chapter in PowerPoint at all—let alone a chapter in PowerPoint that is actually incredible from a literary perspective—I’ll never know. Maybe I’ve become too familiar with how to tell a story on PowerPoint and this just made sense to me, but no, I think this was just a remarkable showcase of her skills as a storyteller. I can’t go on enough about how difficult it must have been to engineer what is a simply beautiful chapter and do it not with sentences, but with bullet points, shapes and graphics on a slideshow.
At the end of the book, we are reintroduced to Alex, a character that completes the story’s loop (he appears in both the first and last chapter). In the first chapter, Alex is in the midst of a one-night-stand with Sasha (another terrific character) and he is naively trying to make his way as the newcomer in the City. In the last chapter, it is many years later, and bits and pieces of the memories of his and Sasha’s one-night-stand return to Alex as he meets Bennie, Sasha’s former boss. When he finally connects the dots, he is anxious to remember himself from those first days in New York, a time he has all but forgotten. He wants to go see the apartment where he slept with Sasha, as a way of reconnecting with his not so distant past. Egan gives us this “before-and-after” perspective with many of the characters in “Goon Squad” but Alex is explicit in his consideration of these moments in time. He seems overcome by his desire to reconnect with his younger self, or at least to understand better how he got to where he is. It is part nostalgia, and part curiosity. And it’s something that I can relate to.
I’m 34 this year, and it’s a mediocre age. The mid-thirties are difficult. When I think about who my age cohort is, I still feel much closer to someone who is 24 than someone who is 44. All around me though, life is reflecting my actual age. Friends are either getting divorced or having kids. Parents are getting older and grandparents are either frail or long gone. Jobs become careers, or if they don’t, they become just a lifelong means to an end. Life decisions are made once and for all. And for some reason, like Alex, I’ve been thinking more about how I got here. I’m finding myself reminiscing about college, home, and old times. Alex seeking out Sasha’s old apartment reminded me of going to see Room 127 in Brockman—I want to stare in that room and try to remember what it was like and what I was thinking back then. Egan begins the book with a Proust quote (if she can start with a quote, I can start with a definition) that cautions us against visiting those places (“hazardous pilgrimages,” Proust warns). But as with a car wreck, we can’t help ourselves. Like Alex, I’m at that moment where I feel like looking back and understanding more how we got from there to here.
The central character in this award-winning book was not Benny or Sasha or anyone else. It was indeed time. The goon. And as we learn the hard way, time always has its way with us.
I’ll say one more thing. It is daunting to write about a book that won a Pulitzer and that will one day be considered an important literary accomplishment. More than I ever was in college, I’m self-conscious of the fact I may just be plain wrong about the point of a book like this. If you’ve read this (or if you haven’t) I’d be anxious to hear your perspective.
Thanks for reading.