Music as a metaphor for the ebb and flow of life is a fairly common strategy in literature. But rarely is it employed with such hipness and fun as it is in Jennifer Egan’s 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Visit From The Goon Squad. To drive home this music-as-metaphor notion, near the end of the novel, a character explains: “Hey Dad, there’s a partial silence at the of ‘Fly Like An Eagle,’ with a sort of rushing sound in the background that I think is supposed to be the wind, or maybe time rushing past!”
In fact, the passage of time is the real rub in this series of 13 interconnected stories featuring several recurring characters. “‘Time’s a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?'” an aging music producer named Bennie tells an aging guitarist who is hesitant to play a show. Bennie, who owns a record label, and his assistant, Sasha, are really the two main characters. The novel goes back and forth in time explaining both their successes and failures. Sasha is a kleptomaniac with a checkered past — as a teenager, she’d run away with (you guessed it!) a musician, and supported herself by stealing, among other socially frowned-upon activities, in Naples. And Bennie struggles to come to terms with middle age and a failed marriage.
The crescendo and diminuendo of Bennie and Sasha’s lives, mixed with those of several related characters, is what makes up the meat of the book. As time marches on, and mistakes are made, are the characters able to redeem themselves? And if so, how? And if so, is that redemption authentic?
The characters’ quests for authenticity, whether real or not, is another one of the more fascinating themes of the novel — an appropriate theme for a novel about the music business, don’t you think? One of the stories chronicles Bennie’s high school days (from the perspective of a female friend named Rhea who happens to have a crush on him) in the late ’70s in San Francisco. Bennie and his friends — mostly from upper class families — fancy themselves punks, but Rhea acknowledges that even with the green hair and dog collars, nothing is real until they leave their parents’ houses and join the real world. Another story deals with a PR specialist who tries to rebuild a murderous general’s reputation by hooking him up with a famous actress. And finally, the last story has a blogger (though in a futuristic way — because it’s the year 2021) paying other bloggers to write nice things about a musician desperately in need of a big break.
Egan tells these stories in different voices and with different methods — one of my favorites is a faux magazine article, the tone of which bears more than a passing resemblance to a David Foster Wallace piece. There’s also a story told in shapes that resemble PowerPoint slides — that story itself isn’t as interesting as many of the others, but the form and ingenuity is, and this is where the music-as-metaphor theme is driven home in that the character Lincoln is obsessed with pause in classic rock songs.
This is a novel much deserving of its Pulitzer. Read this!