A Visit from the Goon Squad is a 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning work of fiction by American author Jennifer Egan. The book is a set of thirteen interrelated stories with a large set of characters all connected to Bennie Salazar, a record company executive, and his assistant, Sasha. The book centers on the mostly self-destructive characters, who, as they grow older, are sent in unforeseen, and sometimes unusual, directions by life. The stories shift back and forth in time from the 1970s to the present and into the near future. Many of the stories take place in and around New York City, although other settings include San Francisco, Italy, and Kenya.
In addition to winning the Pulitzer Prize, the book also won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 2010. The novel received mostly positive reviews from critics.
Jennifer Egan (born September 7, 1962) is an American novelist and short story writer who lives in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn with her husband and two sons. Egan's novel A Visit from the Goon Squad won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. As of February 28, 2018, she is the President of the PEN America Center.
Egan received a Thouron Award in 1986, was the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1996. In 2002 she wrote a cover story on homeless children that received the Carroll Kowal Journalism Award. She was a fellow at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library in 2004–2005. Her 2008 story on bipolar children won an Outstanding Media Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness. In 2011 she was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.
Egan won the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award (Fiction), the Los Angeles Times Book Prize,and Pulitzer Prize for A Visit from the Goon Squad.
Egan won the 2018 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Manhattan Beach. The novel was also longlisted for the 2017 National Book Award..
Because of its unusual narrative structure, some critics have characterized the book as a novel and others as a collection of linked short stories. A Visit from the Goon Squad has 13 chapters, which can be read as individual stories and which do not focus on any single central character or narrative arc. Many were originally published as short stories in magazines such as The New Yorker and Harper's Magazine. In an interview with Salon.com's Laura Miller, Egan said she leaned toward calling the book a novel rather than a short story collection. She has also said that she considers the book to be neither a story collection nor a novel.
Found Objects – Sasha, a young kleptomaniac, steals a woman's wallet while on a date with Alex. She returns the wallet to its owner, who does not turn Sasha in. She later steals a note from Alex's wallet. Set in the present day, told in the third person from Sasha's perspective.
The Gold Cure – Bennie, Sasha, and Bennie's son Christopher attend a performance of one of Bennie's bands, Stop/Go. Set in the recent past, told in the third person from Bennie's perspective.
Ask Me If I Care – Bennie and Scotty's band, The Flaming Dildos, score a show at a punk club, thanks to a music producer named Lou, who is dating their friend Jocelyn. Set in the early 1980s in San Francisco, told by Rhea.
Safari – Lou takes his children, Rolph and Charlene, and his new girlfriend Mindy, on a hunting safari in Kenya. Set in 1973, the story is told in the third person, mostly from Mindy's perspective.
You (Plural) – Jocelyn and Rhea visit Lou on his death bed. Set about a decade in the past, told by Jocelyn.
X's and O's – Scotty delivers a fish to Bennie at his Sow's Ear Records office, where they have a tense standoff. Set a few years in the past, told by Scotty.
A to B – Stephanie, Bennie's wife and a publicist, and her brother Jules, visit Bosco, an aging rockstar. Set a few years in the past, told in the third person from Stephanie's perspective.
Selling the General – Dolly, a washed-up publicist, enlists formerly-famous starlet Kitty Jackson to help soften the image of a murderous dictator who has hired Dolly. Set in the present, told by Dolly.
Forty Minute Lunch: Kitty Jackson Opens Up About Love, Fame and Nixon! Jules Jones Reports – Jules interviews Kitty Jackson, as he has been hired to write a magazine article about her. However, as their lunch is drawing to a close, Jules convinces Kitty to go for a walk with him in Central Park, where he assaults her. Set a few years in the past, presented as a magazine article that Jules writes while in prison.
Out of Body – Rob and Drew, Sasha's boyfriend, spend a night partying, before they go for a swim in the East River, where Rob drowns. Set a decade or so in the past, told in the second person from Rob's perspective.
Goodbye, My Love – Ted Hollander is in Naples, ostensibly looking for his niece Sasha, who disappeared two years before. However, Ted is using the all-expenses-paid trip as an excuse to visit museums and see art. Set about a decade and a half in the past, told in the third person from Ted's point of view.
Great Rock and Roll Pauses by Alison Blake – Set about 15 years in the future, presented as a PowerPoint presentation made by Alison.
Pure Language – Alex, an audio technician, is hired by Bennie to find 50 'parrots' – essentially people paid to feign fandom – for Scotty's debut show. Set about 15 years in the future, told from Alex's point of view in the third person.
The title of Jennifer Egan's new novel may make it sound more like an episode of Scooby-Doo than an exceptional rendering of contemporary America, but don't be fooled. The book received rave reviews when it was published in the US last year, and for good reason; it has since been named a finalist for several prestigious American prizes. Egan has said that the novel was inspired by two sources: Proust's À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, and HBO's The Sopranos. That shouldn't make sense but it does: Goon Squad is a book about memory and kinship, time and narrative, continuity and disconnection, in which relationships shift and recombine kaleidoscopically. It is neither a novel nor a collection of short stories, but something in between: a series of chapters featuring interlocking characters at different points in their lives, whose individual voices combine to a create a symphonic work that uses its interconnected form to explore ideas about human interconnectedness. This is a difficult book to summarise, but a delight to read, gradually distilling a medley out of its polyphonic, sometimes deliberately cacophonous voices.
The "goon squad" of the title is not itself a reference to The Sopranos: there are no mobsters here. It is one character's name for time: "Time's a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?" Everyone in the book is pushed around by time, circumstance and, occasionally, the ones they love, as Egan reveals with great elegance and economy the wobbly arcs of her characters' lives, their painful pasts and future disappointments. Characters who are marginal in one chapter become the focus of the next; the narrative alternates not only between first-person and third-person accounts, but – perhaps just because she can – Egan throws in a virtuosic second-person story as well, in which a suicidal young man tells his tale to a colloquial "you". She also shifts dramatically across times and places: punk teenagers in 1970s San Francisco become disillusioned adults in the suburbs of 1990s New York; their children grow up in an imagined, slightly dystopic future in the California desert, or attend a legendary concert at "The Footprint", where the Twin Towers used to be, sometime in the 2020s.
The stories circle magnetically around a few characters who recur a bit more frequently than others, and broadly around the American music scene: Lou, a coke-snorting, teenage-girl-seducing music producer in the 1970s, becomes the mentor of an untalented young bass player, Bennie, who becomes a music producer himself, who hires a young woman, Sasha, who has a problem with kleptomania, who sleeps with a young man, Alex, who much later ends up hired by Bennie to engineer the comeback of Bennie's high-school friend Scott, who went off the rails as an adult and ended up one day in Bennie's office with a fish he'd caught in the East River, where Sasha's best friend and boyfriend in college had once gone for an early morning swim with tragic consequences. Bennie's wife works for a publicist named Dolly whose daughter, Lulu, will end up working with Alex; Bennie's wife's brother is a journalist who is arrested for the attempted rape of an actress named Kitty Jackson who has her own fall from grace and is later hired by Dolly to enable the public rehabilitation of a genocidal Latin American dictator.
Each chapter has its own distinct voice and mood, modulating from satire to farce, from melancholy to tragedy. I've never found a description of attempted rape funny before, but when Jules Jones writes (from prison) his account of his assault on Kitty Jackson during an interview, it becomes an uproarious parody of David Foster Wallace that owes more than a little to Nabokov as well, as Jules describes finding himself with "one hand covering Kitty's mouth and doing its best to anchor her rather spirited head, the other fumbling with my zipper, which I'm having some trouble depressing, possibly because of the writhing motions of my subject beneath me." Kitty sprays him with Mace, stabs him in the leg with a Swiss army knife, and runs away. "I think I'd have to call that the end of our lunch," Jules remarks.
If it comes as a surprise that an attempted rape can be hilarious, it is an even greater surprise that a PowerPoint presentation can be moving. Goon Squad becomes more fragmented, and more formally experimental, as it progresses: the penultimate chapter is written entirely as the PowerPoint slide diary of Sasha's teenage daughter Alison, whose brother is obsessed with pauses in rock songs. Those pauses, like the spaces between PowerPoint slides, become a metaphor for the gaps between what we mean and what we say, or the apparently unbridgeable distance between family members. The trick feels appropriate in a book preoccupied throughout by the effects of technology on our lives and culture, from the consequences for music of the digital revolution (as Bennie observes, digital production has transformed not only the industry of music but its sound as well) to the way in which technology is transforming our language. Egan's Orwellian final chapter imagines a future in which English has decomposed into radical text-speak: "if thr r children, thr mst b a fUtr, rt?"
Egan has said that the organising principle of A Visit from the Goon Squad is discontinuity; this may be true, but the reason the book works so well is because of the continuities she has also created: her atomised people collide, scatter and recombine in patterns that are less chaotic than they appear. Egan's characters, and the America they inhabit, are winding entropically down. It's a kind of meditation on the butterfly effect, in which recurrence becomes the measure of the chaos of our lives, the novel reimagined as a series of chain reactions. But Egan's vision of history and time is also decidedly, and perhaps reassuringly, cyclical: the impacts these characters have upon each other are engineered not by coincidence but by connectedness itself, as the people we bump against and bang into become the story of our lives.
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