A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

I have this on-off plan to have read all of the Pulitzer Prize winners for best fiction. I’ll probably never finish it, but it’s fun all the same. I still have a long way to go. Of the 18 titles since 1994, I have now read 11 of them. Before, going back to 1948 there are big gaps to plug as I’ve only read seven of these. The idea behind this project is to introduce me to books I might not otherwise come across and to prevent me slipping into a pattern of reading only titles by known authors or familiar genres. Of the recent winners only Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road are books I’m sure I would have read anyway. Jennifer Egan’s novel is one I had never heard of prior to it being announced as the prize winner in 2011. Reading it has vindicated and revitalised my Pulitzer plan. It is a quite brilliant book. In 1972, there was a corny but cute song by Jim Croce called Time In A Bottle which opened with the verse: “If I could save time in a bottle / The first thing that I’d like to do / Is to save every day / Till eternity passes away / Just to spend them with you”. The sentiment is very sloppy and, of course, entirely impracticable – days can’t last forever and words cannot make wishes come true. This song played in my head while reading Egan’s multifaceted novel because it is one in which each of its many characters experience the effects the relentless march of time has on their lives . In Italy the novel is translated as ‘Il tempo è un bastardo’ . time is a bastard.

Jennifer Egan

Goon Squad has many possible meanings but here the ‘goon’ of the title is ‘time’, as in the expression “Time’s a goon” which is first voiced by a gone-to-seed musician Bosco who contemplates a series of comeback concerts which he calls his ‘suicide tour’ since there’s a high possibility he will die somewhere en-route. Egan explained in an interview in The Daily Beast that she came up with this expression when thinking that “time is the stealth goon, the one you ignore because you are so busy worrying about the goons right in front of you”. The opening quote from Proust’s In Search of Lost Time expands on this key theme: “Poets claim that we recapture for a moment the self that we were long ago……..but these are the most hazardous pilgrimages, which as often end in disappointment as success”. Put another way, while we may think back nostalgically to key moments in our lives, we can never be that person again or repeat the set of circumstance that led up to it. And life can be kind or cruel, as one down, and almost out, character (Scotty ) reflects on the fine line between success and failure “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”. The non linear time frame of the novel takes us from around the late 1970s to somewhere around 2020 and Egan skilfully interweaves the past with the present and, for good measure, often adds poignant glimpses or hints of what the future holds. Take for example this description of young movie starlet Kitty Jackson : “Kitty is so young and well nourished so sheltered from the gratuitous cruelty of others, so unaware yet that she will reach middle age and eventually die (possibly alone) because she has not yet disappointed herself, merely startled the world with her own premature accomplishments”. Thus at the peak of her success, when this actress is at her most luminous, we are reminded how transient this all is and that the painful road ahead is destined to be mainly downhill. There are numerous moments when characters are locked in a moment that they realise at the time is significant, so they say things like:

  • “Let’s remember this day, even when we don’t know each other anymore”
  • “Let’s make sure it’s always like this”
  • “I want to stay here forever with Dad”
  • “It felt like it would never end”

The reality, which they know themselves, is that we cannot freeze time or hold back the ageing process. This is a life’s tragedy but can also be a blessing. In one scene, Ted is contemplating his passionless, unhappy marriage to Susan reflects: “..a sort of amnesia has overtaken Susan; her rebellion and hurt had melted away, deliquesced into a sweet, eternal sunniness that was terrible in the way that life would be terrible, Ted supposed, without death to give it gravitas and shape”. This catalogue of faded or adjusted dreams and contemplations on the fragility of happiness could have made for a depressing novel. Yet while Egan’s book, set mainly in her native New York, is full of sadness it is also very funny. The sharpness of her insights show people’s infinite capacity to delude themselves, present the superficiality of the media (especially in the music industry) and casts a cool eye on how technology opens up new possibilities (one chapter is in the form of power point slides) while triggering a nostalgia for the analogue culture. Jennifer Egan’s bold and structurally complex novel takes up various threads, some of which are left dangling, some of which are picked up again but ultimately she knows exactly where she is going and reaches a closure of sorts although with the arrival “another girl, new to the city” at the conclusion there is also a recognition that as one story ends another begins. Link: Jennifer Egan Q & A (Observer Interview)