Back in July 2010, two compelling novels were published by Random House. One was “Stash” by David Klein and the other was “A Visit From the Goon Squad” by Jennifer Egan. Both novels were structured around interlocking stories told from the point of view of multiple characters, but while Egan’s book became a huge bestseller and winner of a Pulitzer Prize, Klein’s novel received only modest attention.
Oh, the vagaries of publishing.
To demonstrate no hard feelings or a taste for sour grapes, I’m going to focus this post on “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” which made my list of the Most Important Novels in My Life and that I’ve recently read again to find out if it belongs on that list. It does, within the top ten for sure.
The “Goon” in Egan’s title is time and the major theme is that time is coming for all of us. Nothing new about that. But the way Egan lays out her novel is brilliant. It wanders back in forth in time, spanning about forty years, and focuses mostly on characters involved in the rock music industry.
The two centerpiece characters are Bennie and Sasha. He is a former punk rocker turned big-time record producer. He eats gold flakes for virility. Sasha was a troubled youth with a penchant for thievery who becomes Bennie’s assistant.
Other characters are tangential to those two. Rob was Sasha’s college friend who drowns in the East River in New York. Scottie was a former bandmate of Bennie’s who flounders as an adult and eventually revives his musical career. Stephanie is Bennie’s first wife who works as a freelance publicist for La Doll, who in turn tries to polish the image of a homicidal general in Central America. Stephanie’s brother is a celebrity journalist who is jailed for attacking a movie star he’s interviewing for a profile piece. Lou was Bennie’s mentor who seduces Bennie’s friend.
Perhaps the most talked-about chapter is a 60-page PowerPoint presentation created by Sasha’s daughter depicting her family life and pauses in rock and roll songs. It’s original, if you can call PowerPoint original.
The stories unfold, shift back and forth, and it’s all complex without being complicated. The characters are flawed but always interesting and mostly with a heart. Time itself engages in its inevitable ticking forward, changing each character irrevocably.
This is one of those novels that isn’t for everybody, but it was definitely for me with its innovative structure and powerful, vivid writing. With a few lines, Egan paints an entire character. Here’s a brief description of Sasha as a young kleptomaniac:
She’d started shoplifting at thirteen with her girlfriends, hiding beaded combs and sparkling earrings inside their sleeves, seeing who could get away with more, but it was different for Sasha—it made her whole body glow. Later, at school, she’d replay each step of an escapade, counting the days until they could do it again. The other girls were nervous, competitive, and Sasha struggled to show only that much.Jennifer Egan
Maybe one of the reasons I was drawn to this passage is that long before I ever read Goon Squad I wrote a passage about shoplifting in an early novel called “Still Life.”
I’d go into department stores and supermarkets and palm anything, whether I wanted it or not. Candy, boxes of cookies, nail files, combs, screwdrivers. I even stole a woman’s bra once and kept it under my bed. Sometimes I went with a friend, and one of us created a diversion while the other loaded up, but usually I worked alone. With others, you had to have this kind of celebration afterward, out in the parking lot or in the back of the store by the dumpsters, holding up your goods like a fresh scalp and whooping it up. I never wanted to celebrate. I felt quiet, queasy in the stomach. Stealing was a silent, private thrill for me.David Klein
Me and Jennifer Egan, we might be cut from similar cloth. Except she has a Pulitzer Prize and so far I’m batting .200 on getting novels published. And time marches on. If you’re interested in another novel that isn’t for everyone, but is definitely for me, check out “Stash.”
Epilogue: I re-read “A Visit From the Goon Squad” because Egan has a new novel out, “The Candy House,” which involves some of the minor characters from Goon Squad. I wanted to familiarize myself with them before I start on “The Candy House,” next on my very long reading list.