Before I even start reviewing a book that is impossible to review, I will explain the first question that popped into my mind when I saw the title: “What is a goon squad?” Google translate (as always) was completely useless but Google search (as almost always), or actually dare I say the best friend of any university student, Wikipedia, answered my question. And I quote: “A goon squad is a group of thugs or mercenaries, commonly associated with anti-union or pro-union violence. In the case of pro-union violence, a goon squad may be formed by union leaders to intimidate or assault non-union workers, strikebreakers, or parties who do not cooperate with the directives of union leadership. In the case of anti-union violence, goon squads are traditionally hired by employers as an attempt at union busting, and resort to many of the same tactics, including intimidation, and assault.” So who the hell might that ‘goon squad’ be then, I reflected as I “flipped” the first page on my Kindle (oh digital era!).
A Visit from the Goon Squad is not a novel in the traditional sense, but it is not a collection of short stories either. Most of them, originally published separately, interconnect and complement each to form a coherent picture of today’s contemporary society. A peripheral and insignificant character in one chapter, turns into a central in another. Egan skilfully changes from 1st to 3rd and even to 2nd point of view and jumps from the hippie years of the 1970s to the 2000s and finally to some remote time in the future. Chapters are different as the characters themselves, but they do have that one theme in common – time is a goon.
I have noticed that peculiar thing about time – it is indeed relative (damn you Einstein). Days tend to go by slowly but years, oh years, they run and one moment you turn around and you wonder what the fuck have you been doing with your life until now. That is how Egan’s characters feel. Their lives (as with all of us) have been shaped by chance, decisions, or other people’s actions. Busy fighting with daily demons, we tend to forget our biggest and invincible enemy. And when time finally strikes, as it always does, we feel its inevitableness, its ultimate power over us, its slyness. The painful question “What if?” will torment us in sleepless nights, making us wonder what would have happened if we took that other road.
I always try to believe that time is not one, but multi-dimensional. That once I hit a circus and I choose the path that seems the least rocky, there will be three other “me” living three totally different lives. And if I wanted to change at one point, it wouldn’t be impossible for the present me to jump into one of these parallel “mes”.
In her book Egan makes you thing about time and timelessness, about connection and discontinuity, about failure and success, and about happiness and sorrow. Her characters, vivid and strikingly real, intertwine constantly. There is Bennie, the music producer, whose assistant Sasha is kleptomaniac, who ends up on a date with Alex, who in a few years will be working for Bennie. Bennie’s wife works for a publicist named Dolly, whose daughter LuLu will be working alongside Bennie and Alex in helping Bennie’s old friend from school establish a music career. Bennie’s wife’s brother Jules attempts to rape a famous actress, who ends up helping Dolly rehabilitate the image of a Latin American dictator. Egan creates a net of characters, who in one way or another influence each other’s life under the sound of music. All of them reflect on time passed by, wondering whether they made the right choices, thinking about how their life might have been different.
A Visit from the Goon Squad is a feel and experience book, that keeps on giving. For one it might be about the disconnected world we live in, where the easiest thing is to reach someone, but the most difficult is to actually get to him. Where we are one call away, and miles apart. For others it might be about music – what it gives and what is most certainly takes away. And yet for another it may signify that inevitable interconnectedness between people. That we are bound to leave people forever only to meet them again.
For me it would always be about time – that goon squad that patiently waits to manifest itself. It is my greatest pain and my greatest concern that I have lost a lot of it fighting demons when I should have been fighting time itself. Not that I could win, it is a lose-lose battle. But it’s been killing me to admit that the past couple of years have been lost on something that at the present moment I don’t see as value-added. I am afraid I will wake up like Lou – a teenage girl who seduces a much older music producer and ends up a coke-snorting, jobless failure of a human being. Looking upon her life, Lou contemplates how different it would have been if she did this instead of that. Of course, we all have these thoughts once in a while, but what happens when these thoughts become not an exception but a rule. And as pathetic and self-destructive as it might sound, they are sometimes true. I could have stopped yesterday, two weeks ago, three years ago and yet I didn’t. Time has been behind the corner, reminding me it would go on no matter how I feel about it.
I strongly recommend A Visit from the Goon Squad not because it won the Pulitzer in 2011, but because it is a book rarely written. Its power lays in stating the obvious in simple, yet powerful terms. It keeps you awake at night and makes you think about the time you had and the time ahead of you. Adding to that the fact that one of the chapters is a power point presentation, I would definitely say that Jennifer Egan joins the list of the most enchanting, enjoyable and real authors I have read.