A Visit From the Goon Squad initially turned me off because of the guitar on the cover. It's silly, perhaps, but my experience with books that prominently feature rock and roll has been that they tend to be goofy pangyrics aimed straight at baby boomers. And the fictional songs... they make Lost's You All Everybody look like I Wanna Hold Your Hand.
But the acclaim Jennifer Egan's novel got everywhere convinced me to pick it up, and its accessible writing sucked me right in when I finally started it. That, and the opening section, about a cynical pickpocket named Sasha. I was immediately impressed at Egan's ability to sketch out a believable character quickly--a real benefit for a novel with as many wide-ranging characters and stories as this one has.
As the cover indicates, music does play a large role. Most of the players who get their own sections are connected in some way to a band called The Flaming Dildos, a band fronted by Bennie Salazar and his enigmatic friend, Scotty. But in reality, the book really works in practice more like a collection of short stories revolving around a recurring cast, of which Sasha, Scotty, and Bennie form only a small part. They're joined by a skeezy record executive safari-ing in Africa, a closeted gay football player in rural America, and dozens of others.
If there's a recurring theme in these stories, which jump in time between the 70s and the near future (maybe 2020 or so) and place (Africa, New York, Italy), it's the way time has a way of changing, crushing, flattening out, and sometimes, rarely, even fulfilling dreams. I won't lie--a lot of the characters have arcs that end in less than cheery places. There is a technique, which seems to me to be uniquely Sparkian, where Egan will sometimes spell out a character's entire future in the middle of a story that ends when they're still a teenager. In a way, this is depressing--learning that a bright young teen grows up to commit suicide at 20, or that a young girl ends up hooked on crack has a way of bringing a reader down--but at the same time, Egan skillfully uses this narrative irony to highlight the eternality of the good moment that is currently happening. Whatever happens going forward, those shining moments can't be snuffed out.
There's also the recurring question of image. Is Scotty an amazing guitarist or a burnout? Is Sasha a housewife or a wild child? Is a Mugabe-like dictator really so evil, or is it all a matter of perspective? And does it matter?
And if Dolly could get people to ask [if he was dating a starlet], the general’s image problems would be solved. It didn’t matter how many thousands he’d slaughtered—if the collective vision of him could include a dance floor, all that would be behind him.
And there is a hope, something just out of the grasp of these characters, elucidated near the end by Bix, who will go on to a reasonably happy ending himself:
“We’re going to meet again in a different place,” Bix says. “Everyone we’ve lost, we’ll find. Or they’ll find us.” “Where? How?” Drew asks. Bix hesitates, like he’s held this secret so long he’s afraid of what will happen when he releases it into the air. “I picture it like Judgment Day,” he says finally, his eyes on the water. “We’ll rise up out of our bodies and find each other again in spirit form. We’ll meet in that new place, all of us together, and first it’ll seem strange, and pretty soon it’ll seem strange that you could ever lose someone, or get lost.”
Finally, Visit includes a lot of structural play--there's a chapter that's a clear piss-take/homage to David Foster Wallace, complete with endnotes that are longer than the text. There's a section, surpsingly affecting, that takes the form of a Powerpoint presentation. There's a chapter in 2nd person. But in all the play, Egan never loses the emotional thread of the stories she tells. And that's a lot more rare than finding someone who can put together a tricky sentence.