A Visit From The Goon Squad is a wandering, impressionistic look at a large group of characters (with the music industry as a central unifying theme) as they live through the latter few decades of the last century and the first couple of this one. The lives and experiences of the cast overlap each other, they have their own problems, they have sex occasionally or often (maybe marry, maybe split), they are mainly interested in themselves and they are preoccupied with what these episodes mean to their own insular life — that in particular relates to the era.
Some experience success, even if it is clouded. Consider music producer Bennie Salazar:
The shame memories began early that day for Bennie, during the morning meeting, while he listened to one of his senior executives make a case for pulling the plug on Stop/Go, a sister band Bennie had signed to a three-record deal a couple years back. Then, Stop/Go had seemed like an excellent bet; the sisters were young and adorable, their sound was gritty and simple and catchy (“Cyndi Lauper meets Chrissie Hynde” had been Bennie’s line early on), with a big gulping bass and some fun percussion — he recalled a cowbell. Plus they’d written decent songs; hell, they’d sold twelve thousand CDs off the stage before Bennie ever heard them play. A little time to develop potential singles, some clever marketing, and a decent video could put them over the top.
That quote from early on the novel has promise, but it is promise that is never realized. In the early pages of the book, I could find a dozen similar examples that say this could be a great book (and it obviously was for some) but for me it was an exercise in promised not realized. As Egan unfolds the many elements of her story, we meet many potentially interesting people but in the final analysis they remain just that — unrealized potential.
Here is the introduction to another one, Rhea, a teenage groupie, a generation younger than Bennie:
Nineteen eighty is almost here, thank God. The hippies are getting old, they blew their brains on acid and now they’re begging on street corners all over San Francisco. Their hair is tangled and their bare feet are thick and gray as shoes. We’re sick of them.
At school, we spend every free minute in the Pit. It’s not a pit in the strictly speaking sense; it’s a strip of pavement above the playing fields. We inherited it from last year’s Pitters who graduated, but still we get nervous walking in if other Pitters are already there: Tatum, who wears a different color Danskin every day, or Wayne, who grows sinsemilla in his actual closet, or Boomer, who’s always hugging everyone since his family did EST. I’m nervous walking in unless Jocelyn is already there, or (for her) me. We stand in for each other.
It is no spoiler to say that these characters will grow up (or age). And that that is the process that Egan’s novel is mainly about. They have their triumphs, challenges and disasters — so many, that the circumstances surrounding those action developments swamp what is good about the book. I don’t even have a Facebook page but, that caveat aside, this novel strikes me as the book equivalent of wandering from one Facebook page to another of a group of friends, following the “lives” of an overlapping group of characters. Lots of photos, many impressions, not much story.
Egan actually does go there, or at least a version of there. On page 176, she begins a 75-page printed, Power Point presentation which is related to one of the themes of the book. On the one hand, that seems “hip” — gee, someone put a Power Point presentation into a book. On the other, it is “totally gross”: anyone who has ever done a Power Point presentation in their life (is there anyone who has not?) knows that 20 slides is the absolute maximum — do you want the paying audience to fall asleep? Interesting trick, author, badly done.
For me, A Visit From The Goon Squad was a continuing exercise in frustration. It always offered the promise of going somewhere (and I did finish it), but the problem was it never did — in any of its numerous plot streams. Given the positive response from other sources, that impression may represent a failing on my part. Perhaps, this is what the fiction of today and the near tomorrow is meant to look like. I’ll keep up with it, if that is the case, but if it is, I am sure glad that I have a library full of classics to fall back on.