Friday, 27 September 2013

A Visit from the Goon Squad

A Visit From the Goon Squad - Jennifer Egan

I lost this book mid-stream and so there was a large gap between starting and finishing it as I waited to find another copy. The book contains a lot of characters over a long period of time and the loss of my initial impetus affected my reading of the book. I was really enjoying it when I lost my copy and I don't think I quite reached the same level of enjoyment during my second bite, although I did enjoy it.

I have also lost some impetus in my blogging. I usually like to write within a few days of finishing, while my emotions while reading and the detail of the book are still fresh and alive. However, my blogging feels a little uphill at the moment and it is a few weeks since I finished this, and given the complexity of the books structure, that has involved a quick trawl through the book to refresh my failing memory. I never do this, and as I have typed out a load of  information such as the lengths of the chapters, the characters in each etc, I am going to use it in this post, just to impress myself. This may lead to SPOILERS so tread carefully.

Even Popeye is overwhelmed by the Goon Squad.
I've been reminded of how bravura a performance this book is. Shuttling back and forward between characters and periods of time it tells, in various styles, the story of a group of (some loosely, some strongly) connected people and how time changes them. Time, indeed, is the goon squad of the title, made explicit by burnt out rock star Bosco: "'Time's a goon, right? Isn't that the expression?'"

The links between chapters / short stories are carefully marshalled, with references to the age of characters, their children or the time they've been working at their job etc allowing the avid mathematician to work out reasonably accurately the year most chapters take place and the age of the characters in them.

The first chapter is called Found Objects and concerns a therapy session in which Sasha talks about her kleptomania, mainly as it affected her date with Alex who she hooked up with through an internet dating site. Sasha comes by temptation in the toilet - "She'd glimpsed the wallet, tender and overripe as a peach". Her inability to resist this temptation changes the whole dynamic of the date. We know it is post 9/11 because the absence of the World Trade Centre is remarked. The characters will reappear in other chapters, both before and after the events in this chapter, meaning that there is an element of prefiguring going on. Sasha's future is already planned - "She and Coz were collaborators, writing a story whose end had already been determined; she would get well."

The second chapter is The Gold Cure which focusses on Sasha's ex-boss in the first chapter, Bennie Salazar, a record producer running the label he once owned but sold five years before.  He is disillusioned with what his job has become. "Bennie knew that what he was bringing into the world was shit." He is in his mid-forties and takes gold leaf with his coffee in an attempt to reignite his libido. With the son of his previous marriage, and assistant Sasha in tow he impulsively calls to the house/studio of an act he signed who have yet to produce anything. His enthusiasm is really for music that can remind him of his past - "the deep thrill of these songs lay, for Bennie, in the rapturous surges of sixteen-year-old-ness they induced; Bennie and his high school gang - Scotty and Alice, Jocelyn and Rhea- none of whom he'd seen in decades (except for a disturbing encounter with Scotty in his office years ago)."

Old Hound
The theme of time is knotted into this chapter in many ways. We find that the last time he visited the band it was four days after 9/11 and that four years have passed since. This sort of information timestamps the individual chapters. We are often told that it has been X no of years since some event which will then be located in a particular year in another chapter. We are also told that you have to live for today and tomorrow to succeed. Being obsessed with the past is like a sign of failure: "Nostalgia was the end - everyone knew that", even if it can give a brief respite in his search for virility - "his prick roused itself like an old hound getting a swift kick".

As well as nostalgia we learn that Bennie has accumulated a burden of guilt which leads to "waves of shame so immense they seemed to engulf whole parts of Bennie's life and drag them away." This is a recurring theme, characters trying to deal with the way their past impinges on the present, the fact that they carry their history with them.

We then move back in time to late 1979 when Bennie played in The Flaming Dildos and hung out with a gang of friends that included Alice, Scotty, Jocelyn and Rhea, who is the narrator of this chapter. It concerns their meeting with Lou an older record producer who tries to stay young and will play a key role in some of their lives. Rhea's best friend is Jocelyn and she describes their friendship in a quick hopscotch through their teenage years: "Jocelyn and I have done everything together since fourth grade: hopscotch, jump rope, charm bracelets, buried treasure, Harriet the Spying, blood sisters, crank calls, pot, coke, quaaludes." Down, down, downers.

The chapter leads to a moment of epiphany for Rhea: "I realize that I'm beginning my adult life right now, on this night." However excited she gets taking these first steps they are also laced with danger. Birth and death are bedmates. When something new is born, the old is no more. The excitement of narcotically enhanced perception is balanced by what is being observed. "A sob cracks open in me. Tears leak out from my eyes, but only the two in my face. The other thousand eyes are closed."

In the following chapter Safari, (which can be dated to 1973) we follow Lou to Africa with young girlfriend Mindy, a PHD student and other hangers on, including the aptly named Chronos who is in a band called The Mad Hatters. But instead of following a white rabbit one of the key moments concerns a quick spin into the veldt to see a pride of lions VERY close up. The prey is the moment, to capture time and experience at their most intense.

Mindi constantly dissects the action with her musings on theoretical motivations, defining "structural" hatred, resentment, affection, incompatibility, desire etc. Lou's children Charlene and Rolph have moments of epiphany and lay down intense memories. We are even told how and through what these memories will persist: "In fact, this particular memory is one she'll return to again and again, for the rest of her life, long after Rolph has shot himself in the head in their father's house at twenty-eight: her brother as a boy, hair slicked flat, eyes sparkling, shyly learning to dance."

We then, in You (Plural), jump forward to the early 2000's when Rhea and Jocelyn visit Lou's death bed. Now in their forties and (somewhat) settled the women have not seen Lou since they were wild and young. The changes wrought by the goon squad are shocking to them: "The quiet makes no sense. Nerve gas? Overdoses? Mass arrests?" ... "What else could have stopped the unstoppable parties."

The women are also fascinated with the changes in themselves, "staring at each other's new faces across the plastic table, our familiar features rinsed in weird adulthood." The epiphanies here mostly concern age and death: "We know him from a time when there was no such thing as normal people dying." "Lou smiles, and the shape of that smile, even with the yellow shocked teeth inside it, is familiar, a  warm finger poking at my gut. His smile, coming open in this strange place."

The effect of technology is another theme which the novel wrestles with, and here is raised by the presence of a new TV: "The TV is new, flat and long, and its basketball game has a nervous sharpness that makes the room and even us look smudged." As the book progresses the effect of technology on people, and music, and community becomes more central.

There are also circular references to the beginnings of the shared story of the group: "In 1979, that could be the beginning of an exciting story, a story where anything might happen. Now it's a punch line." There is a sense that time takes away: "It's finished. Everything went past, without me."

Jocelyn, through whose consciousness this chapter is filtered, has lived through drug use and psychiatric difficulties. She embraced life only to find it dragging her under. She has a mixture of jealousy and resentment for the survival instincts of Rhea: "The whole time Rhea knew what she was doing. Even dancing, even sobbing. Even with a needle in her vein, she was half pretending. Not me."

It also includes flight of fancy when Jocelyn imagines "the real Lou and this old Lou will have a fight. How dare you? I've never had an old person in my house and I'm not going to start now. Age, ugliness - they had no place. They would never get in from outside." But you cannot stop these goons.

 Chapter 6, X's and O's, is one of the stranger chapters. It mainly concerns a visit paid by Scotty, ex singer with The Flaming Dildos, to Bennie after he comes across an article on Bennie in a magazine. Scotty is living a subterranean existence, working in the park, fishing in the East River, spending a lot of his time alone. He brings a freshly caught fish to the meeting and his presence proves unsettling to Sasha and to Bennie.

Scotty seems to have developed a philosophy that eliminates ambition, that pays little attention to following fashion. "I felt no shame whatsoever in these activities, because I understood what almost no one else seemed to grasp: that there was only an infinitesimal difference, a difference so small that it barely existed except as a figment of the human imagination, between working in a tall, green glass building on Park Avenue and collecting litter in a park. In fact, there may have been no difference at all."

Expensive shirt
However his emotions and his philosophy are not in tune with each other. No matter what he tells himself he feels the need at some level for communication and approval.  His meeting with Bennie leads him to a sartorial epiphany: "I understood something for the very first time when I looked at that shirt: I understood that expensive shirts looked better than cheap shirts."

These six chapters form Part A of the book. Chapter 7 concerns Bennie and his wife Stephanie. Bennie is 42 and 'made it', a position that is somewhat cemented by his ownership of a house in an upper-middle class neighbourhood, where the shared mores are conservative and republican. His wife, Stephanie, who anchors the chapter, has been accepted into the country club where her excellent tennis and 'friendship' with Kathy ("Within a few months anyone would have said that Stephanie and Kathy were friends.") gives her an insider status that she is determined to keep. She doesn't want to end up as a pariah and is prepared to play along if that is the price of social ease.

This balance is somewhat  upset by the arrival of Stephanie's brother Jules who has served time and wonders how his rock 'n' roll relatives have ended up in Republican heartland. He also makes this comment on the effect that technology is having on communication. "Everybody sounds stoned, because they're e-mailing people the whole time they're talking to you."

Through Stephanie's job as a PR consultant the figure of one of her clients, Bosco, who was the guitarist with one of Bennie's most successful signings, The Conduits. From being a livewire who outPOPped Iggy, Bosco has become "a fat fuck no one cares about".  He has a new album, A to B, and an idea to revive some ghoulish interest in him.

His idea is to set out on a tour, the demands of which are sure to kill him - "Reality TV, hell - it doesn't get any realer than this. Suicide is a weapon; that we all know. But what about an art?" We will find out the result of this as an aside in the last chapter, a device Egan uses again and again.

But to balance the sometimes overly schematic and dissipated story telling there are also moments of real emotional impact including an episode ending with this line which neatly inverts the act of a suicide bomber. "Her only thought was of getting away, as if she were carrying a live grenade from inside the house, so that when it exploded, it would destroy just herself."

In the next chapter the satire becomes even more broad, as La Doll, once the doyenne of the PR world (and Stephanie's boss), now brought low by a disaster at a big event. In retrospect she sees the accident as only part of the problem. Like earlier comments that nostalgia was a fatal weakness in the music industry (an industry that now seems hugely reliant on nostalgia) La Doll realised that she "had conceived of an event crystallizing an era that had already passed. For a publicist, there could be no greater failure."

Now she is relieved to get any work at all, even if "Your client is a genocidal dictator." Hats with earflaps and romance with a faded starlet prove successful in a roundabout way in one of the more broadly comic episodes.

The comedy, and satire remains in play in the chapter Forty Minute Lunch: Kitty Jackson Opens Up About Love, Fame, and Nixon!, written in journalese by Jules Jones, Stephanie's brother. In it we discover why he ended up in jail, in an event he puts down to the magnetic qualities of celebrity. Kitty Jackson in this is a younger version of the faded starlet who helped, somewhat inadvertently, to rehabilitate a genocidal dictator in the previous chapter.

During the "Forty Minute Lunch" he observes the effect of his dining partners fame on those around him: "when you're a young movie star with blondish hair and a highly recognizable face" "people treat you in a manner that is somewhat different - in fact is entirely different" - "On the surface it's the same - 'May I take your order?' etc. - but throbbing just beneath that surface is the waiter's hysterical recognition of my subject's fame."

Orpheus and Eurydice
Out of Body, the following chapter, goes back to Sasha's college days and gives us an idea of some of the spurs for her behaviours. The next chapter remains focussed on Sasha's story, seen through the eyes of an uncle Ted who is sent to see if he can find her in Naples, a rescue that is somewhat hampered by Ted's desire to view a relief of Orpheus and Eurydice and other art treasures of Naples.

The penultimate chapter, Great Rock and Roll Pauses by Alison Blake is the most stylistically daring, told as it is in a series of  Powerpoint slides, in the 'voice' of a young girl and largely concerning her brother's fascination with pauses in rock and pop songs. It is set in the future after a long war and takes the style of delivering plot information in a sideways manner.

It segues into Pure Language, the last act, which centre's on Alex, the lame date from the first chapter, who is made part of Bennie's attempt to engineer success for Scotty, who Bennie has plucked from obscurity.  It questions the way we use online profiles and the use made of all our personal data. Scotty, who is invisible online becomes reliant on the online world for publicity and sales. There is more broad comedy as the music industry finds itself at the mercy of "pointers", young children, even infants, who drive the download market. This dystopic future world is not entirely convincing and there is a sense of these extrapolated tomorrows being faintly ludicrous.

The book reminds me somewhat of Douglas Coupland's Girlfriend in a Coma, with very similar group dynamic and a somewhat similar end point in a near future that doesn't convince. Goon Squad worked better for me but I am still left with a vague dissatisfaction, a sense that in some way it is more successful with ephemera than character and that the tone varies too much to leave real traction, emotional or intellectual. However it is a judgement that I somewhat reserve because when it's good it's really good. Maybe she would do better to hit fewer mathematically plotted structural coordinates and leave more bruises. I will be checking in to see.

Appendix - My scribbled notes.
1. Found Objects (3-21) 19pps
Sasha(35), Coz (therapist), Alex (lame date, 28 on profile), Bennie Salazar (old boss, 12 years) WTC gone, Lower East Side Flat (6 years), Rob (picture, drowned in college) Paper (I believe in you)

2. The Gold Cure (22-44) 23pps 2006 (five years after 9/11)
Bennie(44, takes gold for virility), Stop/Go (band) Sisters Chandra & Louisa(almost 30)one w/9 yr old daughter Olivia, Collette, Mother Superior, Sasha (in thirties now), Stephanie (divorced from Bennie, now on clubs number one doubles team), Christopher (their son) sold label 5 years before, Scotty, Alice, Jocelyn, Rhea, Dr Beet (therapist), Stu (barber), Abby (girl from "a hundred years ago") Five years ago - Windows on the World "'How close to-' 'Four days'", Flaming Dildos, Lou (died three months ago)

3. Ask Me if I Care (45-67) 23pps Late 1979
Alice, Scotty, Bennie, Jocelyn, I - Rhea, Tatum, Wayne, Boomer, Lou (an adult man - picked Jocelyn up hitchhiking), Alice's stepfather, Joel, Marty, Charlie (20), Rolph

4. Safari (68-95) 28pps 1973
Rolph, Charlene (14), Lou, Mindy, Ramsey, 4 Samburu warriors, Albert, Joe, Lulu, Cora, Chronos (Mad Hatters), Louise (12); Dean; (Mildred; Fiona (bird watching ladies))
"Coming  Lou says, but Chronos is faster."

5. You (Plural) (96-104) 9pps (2003?)
Bennie, Lou, Rhea (43), Jocelyn(43), Rolph (deceased @ 28), Nadine (16?)

6. X's and O's (105-123) 19pps
Scotty, Bennie Salazar, Sammy, Dave, Sasha

7. A to B (127-156) 30pps
Stephanie, Bennie, Chris, Kathy, Duck, Bosco(Conduits guitarist), Clay, Colin, Jules, Kitty Jackson, Bill Duff, Scooter (16), Sylph (cat), Noreen, La Doll , Sasha
"They were young and lucky and strong - what did they have to worry about? If they didn't like the result they could go back and start again."

8. Selling the General (157-189) 33pps
La Doll (Dolly, Miss Peale); General B, Lulu, Arc, Kitty Jackson

9. Forty Minute Lunch: Kitty Jackson Opens Up About Love, Fame, and Nixon! (190-212) 23pps
Jules Jones, Kitty Jackson, Janet Green, Jake

10. Out of Body (213-238) 26pps
Drew Blake, Sasha, Bix, Lizzie, Rob, Coach Freeman, Lars, James, Pilar, Bosco, Bennie Salazar
"she's starting to forget, begin over again"

11. Goodbye, My Love (239-267) 29pps Naples
Ted Hollander, Sasha, Beth, Hammer, Susan, (Alfred, Miles, Ames) -sons Elsa, Andy Grady, Wade (Pinheads)
Orpheus and Eurydice, Naples

12. Great Rock and Roll Pauses by Alison Blake (268-343)
Alison Blake, Lincoln, Drew, Sasha, Bosco, Jules

13. Pure Language (344-379) 36pps 2019
Bennie, Alex, Sasha (forgotten), Ava, Cara-Ann, Rebecca, Lupa, Scotty Hausmann, Sandra, Rose (stripper/cellist), Max (ex Pink Buttons / wind magnate), Lulu, Chris, Dolly, Zeus, Joe
"Scotty shook his head. 'The goon won.'"


  1. Loved this book although part of a mini theme of the moment when a book of short stories is presented as a novel as it has linked recurring characters. I guess publishers realise books of short stories never really sell. You are right about the last chapter , it doesn't quite convince , and slightly detracts from what has gone before

    1. I didn't have an issue with this being presented as a novel as the links between the stories/chapters are so strong. If anything I think it might have benefitted from acting a little more like a book of short stories. And though most of the chapters would stand alone quite happily there are a few that would struggle in a short story compilation.

  2. I enjoyed this book at the time but the only memory I have of it now is that a Frames song is mentioned in Rock n Roll Pauses. I've just finished the Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan, a book with a a similar structure, but one I think that will live long in the memory.

    1. I've come across a few strong recommendations for the Donal Ryan book. Must hunt it down.

  3. I can't make up my mind whether I'd love this or more probably hate it (probably the latter, but other positive reviews and your affirmation that "when it's good, it's really good" leave room for hope), so I'll prob. give it a try for myself some day. However, the singular ugliness of that cover makes me wonder whether the text itself is more superficial/thrown together than many of the book's fans are willing to admit. The story sounds all over the place and not necessarily in a good way.

    1. Can't find my reply to this Richard (and you undoubtedly won't now after this long a gap!) It was probably something glib about covers, books and men in silly wigs. The previous copy i had was graced with a less ugly cover.