The title of Jennifer Egan’s latest book, A Visit from the Goon Squad, has such a negative connotation that anyone picking it up for the first time will expect there is some dark force at work, either human or otherwise. In the case of this work, both things are true. Humans don’t often treat each other in humane ways, and there is a force outside of our control that does a lot of damage: time.
As Bosco, one of the peripheral characters says, “Time’s a goon, right? Isn’t that the expression?” In another section near the end, a different character, Bennie, a punk rocker and record executive (who is one of the two more central figures in the book), says to Scotty, an aging performer who is backing out at the last minute from doing a major concert that Bennie has arranged, “You can, Scotty—you have to….Time’s a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?”
Unfortunately, the goon does push around all of these characters. We all know it’s the nature of being human. And Egan’s novel in linked stories, a collage of these disparate characters lives, captures the way they are roughed up over and over. But this encounter with time also brings wisdom and transformation into some of these characters’ lives. That outcome makes these experiences worthwhile. After all, it’s our individual encounters with the narratives of our own stories that provide the foundation for novelists’ fictions.
While much of the book’s action keeps the reader focused intensely in the present, most chapters at some point flash forward, giving a view of that person’s life in future years. Each section therefore can stand alone, unlike in the traditional novel where a chapter is only a short stop on the journey of these characters’ lives. I didn’t need to know more about light-fingered Sasha, whom we meet in the first episode. Along with Bennie, she anchors this work. But after reading Chapter 1, my experience with her felt complete. Yet when Egan returns to her in later sections and shines a light on Sasha from various angles, it fleshes her out and gives the ending added poignancy because it telescopes the time that has passed as well as the impact we have on one another.