Through 13 loosely connected vignettes from different characters' viewpoints spanning roughly 40 years, Pulitzer-winning author Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad is both a novel and a book of short stories. It is a tale set in contemporary America about the loss of youth, loss of connection, the rise of a new generation, and, through all this, the passage of time. This main theme (Egan's primary inspiration, along with Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction") is summed up eloquently in the Marcel Proust quote before the story opens:
"Poets claim that we recapture for a moment the self that we were long ago when enter some house or garden in which we used to live in our youth. But these are most hazardous pilgrimages, which end as often in disappointment as in success. It is in ourselves that we should rather seek to find those fixed places, contemporaneous with different years." Proust
Two "grounding" characters, Sasha and Bernie, appear in several chapters and best embody the story's main themes. Bernie, the aging punk rock record producer, is going through a divorce and having trouble connecting with his son. He doesn't listen to new bands, no longer makes music, and misses the days of his old band, "The Flaming Dildos." Sasha, the sexy former runaway and kleptomaniac, works as Bernie's assistant. Although she has trouble making lasting human connections, her collection of "found" objects brings her great joy and a hefty psychiatric bill. She eventually reconnects with her college boyfriend, Drew, and moves to the desert to raise a son and daughter together, happily stable if not completely fulfilled. We end the story with a reinvigorated, if not completely satisfied, Bernie helping his old bandmate from "The Flaming Dildos" jumpstart a new music career in a semi-futuristic New York City.
Egan's prose is eloquent yet bad-ass. She drops Black Flag references as casually as she describes the frustrations of a tennis-loving housewife. In the same novel, she beautifully captures the teen angst of a runaway alongside the repulsiveness of a record producer asking his teenage girlfriend for a blowjob at a punk show. Weaving backward and forward in time, Egan spins a narrative of love, loss, and reconnection in an America we understand: the 80s punk scene, the modern corporate culture of workaholism, drug use, the digitalization of everything, and suburbia. It works.
Lovers of contemporary American fiction and experimental structures will enjoy this book. It is best devoured on a plane or beach, possibly after seeing your favorite 80s rock band. A warning: all of us share something in common with Egan's characters. Be ready to disengage from suburbia, dust off your guitar, and reminisce about old flames.
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