Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad is just as great as its creatively promising title suggests. Egan takes the postmodern literary techniques I both loathe and love (mixed media, nonlinear timeline, shifting point of view) and utilizes them to tell the heartbreaking story of a matter as simple as the passing of time. Using the characters of Bennie, a record industry veteran, and Sasha, his impassioned-but-complicated assistant, as his anchors, Egan assembles an army of characters that demonstrate movingly the importance of human connection in our increasingly fast-paced and digitized society.
The overarching theme of A Visit from the Goon Squad is time, the eponymous “goon squad” itself. For each of the novel’s characters, time undoubtedly offers perspective. For most, however, this perspective yields great disappointment. In the case of Drew, the politically ambitious college friend of Rob and Sasha, this disappointment is reached in the form of regret. Hard as he tries, Drew cannot forgive himself for the death of Rob. As a result, Drew realigns his life’s trajectory with the purpose of atoning for what he believes was his failure to save his friend.
For other characters, especially those of the later generations, time acts as a salve for the disappointments of youth. Early tragedy for these characters has bolstered their survival skills, rendering them much stronger than their elders once they reach adulthood themselves. No character symbolizes this cultural shift better than Lulu, the fatherless daughter of La Doll. La Doll, a complicated and redemptive character in her own right, is a former publicist who not only exposed her young daughter to humiliation as a result of her own poor decisions, but to physical danger in the form of a visit to a powerful client that is purported to have instigated genocide in his capacity as his country’s “general”. Instead of defeating her, time appears to heal Lulu, transforming her into a successful and stable modern adult.
Though the progression of time depresses and disappoints many of the characters of A Visit from the Goon Squad, as the novel nears its close, Egan suggests an alternative. The advance and takeover of technology, as Egan admits via her final chapter, is inevitable. However, technology, as disconnecting as it can appear, can also be used to foster genuine human connections. These connections, as demonstrated through the rekindled relationship between Sasha and Drew, can prove to be very positive. Similarly, technology can play a beneficial role in preexisting relationships. In fact, without the advances Egan posits in the 2020-ish world of the final chapter, Alex is unlikely to reconnect with his wife via his GPS-equipped handset as well as he is ultimately able to do.
Finally, while Egan’s fragmented storytelling style can be challenging at times, it ultimately yields a very rewarding final product. Each chapter introduces a new character’s perspective, with many former narrators making cameos or starring appearances in the others’ chapters. This disjointed style of narrative complemented well the technologically astute society it portrays. The loose connections between each new narrator serve as a metaphor for the rambling nature of our contemporary Internet-savvy brains.
Overall, I very much enjoyed Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. This Pulitzer Prize-winner comes highly recommended to readers of all types.