“’Time’s a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?’” Scotty shook his head. “’The goon won.’”
In case it wasn’t obvious from the line above, the titular “Goon Squad” is a reference to time and its ravages. That line is really all you need to know about Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad. It’s a series of linked short stories, narrated by different people whose lives are intertwined in myriad ways. It’s essentially a more literary version of Love Actually, except instead of the central theme being love and how it actually is all around us, it is instead time, and how it fucks us all up.
In this form, Egan proves mostly adept. Her spun vignettes have the depth and tight pacing of stand-alone stories (three of them were published in the New Yorker before they appeared in Goon Squad), but where she sometimes slips up is how she puts those pieces together. While the common theme of time is echoed in various subtle and unsubtle ways throughout the all of the stories, the pacing between them can sometimes seem a bit jerky, the transitions abrupt. Logistically, it takes you out of the story because you have to flip back three chapters to check on a character’s name, or make sure of the chronology. Some chapters could have been left out entirely; I’m thinking specifically of the last chapter, which drifts suddenly into dystopian lit much as one might meander absentmindedly into a bad part of town. It’s narrated by Alex, whose character was only ever interesting enough to be a bit part in Sasha’s dating life, and none of its musings on the passing of time were significant. This bit of dystopian text-speak was particularly grating: “if thr r childrn, thr mst b a fUtr, rt?” Putting aside Egan’s profound misunderstanding of how texting works, this point and the chapter as a whole were so unsubtle, such a departure in tone from the rest of the novel, that I found myself doubting whether the stories I had read before were as good as I have given them credit for.
The truth is that many of them are. “Safari” was my favorite. Unsurprisingly, most of the chapters previously published in the New Yorker held up very well, probably because they were subjected to tougher editing than the completed book. That having been said, the chapter narrated entirely in Power Point by Sasha’s adolescent daughter was also a stand-out. Had I flipped to this page in the bookstore before buying it, I probably would have left it on the shelf – I hate that kind of in-your-face whimsy. But it worked well in this context, probably because the straightfowardness of the medium matches pretty well to that of your average disaffected pre-teen.
Still, even the good pieces are overshadowed by the fact that there are too many of them, and they don’t all quite fit together. The over-saturation left me wondering whether I had read anything at all, mass critical acclaim notwithstanding. The truth is, this post has been sitting in my queue as a draft for three weeks because I didn’t retain enough of the book to have any particular feeling about it. I read it, enjoyed a lot of it, but wasn’t really left with anything to hold on to. Maybe that’s a hidden reflection on time, the Goon Squad itself: we live it, we enjoy a lot of it, but ultimately it leaves us with very little. I doubt it, though. I think it’s far more likely that there were some very good pieces that needed a more thoughtful construction and better editing to really make it stick.
Recommended for: 29 year olds. Preferably those who are less than a month away from their thirtieth birthday. Same goes for 39 year olds.
Read when: You’re wallowing in self-pity about turning thirty. See above. Then put the book away and go eat some well-deserved birthday cake. As Jules says in the book, “Sure, everything is ending, but not yet.”
Listen with: Something mildly overbearing. Radiohead’s Kid A album.