My summer reading nominee is especially aimed at the music lovers out there. It’s called “A Visit from the Goon Squad” by Jennifer Egan. The book, which has been recommended by Art-Colleges.com and has won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2011, is a breeze to read, while hitting at the heart of human relationships at all ages of life.
“A Visit From the Goon Squad” has an interesting structure. The story is told through a series of interconnected short stories, which make it seem almost novel-esque by the end. The stories focus around two main characters. One is Bennie Salazar. Bennie is cool or, at least, he used to be. Now he’s a middle-aged music executive, hawking bands he doesn’t believe in (he started out as a punk rocker wielding the guitar himself). The other character we follow is Sasha. She’s in her mid-30s and has been Bennie’s assistant from when he started in the music business. From the opening of the book, the reader gets the feeling that she’s baffled by how she ended up where she is, with a job she can only tolerate, no significant other and an obsessive penchant for stealing people’s wallets. Throughout the book, we travel backward and forward in time, dipping into Sasha and Bennie’s past and the characters that have influenced them.
Music and Time
The two overwhelming themes in “A Visit From the Goon Squad” include the passage of time and the effects of music on the human psyche. In the book’s title, “goon” is a stand-in for time, as one quote from the book attests: “Time’s a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?” As the chapters in the book progress, we go back and forward in time guided by Egan’s artful narratives. We see Bennie’s youth as a ‘70s punk rocker and meet Sasha in college and in Italy, where she went for a rebellious break from school. Later in the book, we meet her children, one of whom also finds solace in music.
Egan’s book shows a remarkable vision of technology and the future as well. One story is actually told in the form of a PowerPoint presentation, from the perspective of one of Sasha’s kids. It’s one of the most moving chapters of the book. The final story in the book takes a rather dystopian look into the future, showing a world of environmental degradation and ever-present technology. The skills by which Egan weaves these themes and narrative structures together are incredibly impressive and show a mastery of the writing process. I was actually inspired after finishing the book to explore the online writing degree options that are out there.
The Take Away
Grab a towel and a cool drink by the pool and get ready to cry. The book is a bit dystopian, sure, but reading and experiencing time in this book is immensely cathartic. Life in Egan’s musical world isn’t always pretty, but it always feels like the truth.
“The New York Times” (2010)
PBS NewsHour (2011)