During brunch with good friends one Sunday afternoon late in the summer, I hear about Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. The author is familiar to me because I have just finished reading her story “Safari” in the “Best American Short Stories of 2010” which I pick up and read when I’m in between novels. My friend is enthused about the writing and gives me a little preview of what the novel is about: “Time’s a goon, right?” So, all these interconnected stories (including the one I have read and not particularly liked) are about individuals involved in the music industry. Most have had their fifteen minutes of fame, some were wildly successful in their youth and we, as readers, see glimpses of that life before they flame out on drugs or alcohol or because of bad decisions or sometimes just time (that goon) gets to them and they end up disappointed and old, or at least older, and disappointing.
There are no likeable characters in this novel. But this doesn’t stop me from reading it. I can’t look away – I want to see just how outrageous these characters can be, and Egan doesn’t disappoint me here. The writing is stark, vivid and terrible. Like this character talking about his wife:
. . . he had taken the passion he felt for Susan and folded it in half, so he no longer had a drowning, helpless feeling when he glimpsed her beside him in bed: her ropy arms and soft, generous ass. Then he’d folded it in half again, so when he felt desire for Susan, it no longer brought with it an edgy terror of never being satisfied. Then in half again, so that feeling desire entailed no immediate need to act. Then in half again, so he hardly felt it. His desire was so small in the end that Ted could slip it inside his desk or a pocket and forget about it, and this gave him a feeling of safety and accomplishment, of having dismantled a perilous apparatus that might have crushed them both.
There is a character who steal compulsively, way beyond shoplifting, a character who sprinkles gold dust into his coffee with the hope that it is better than Viagra for increasing his sexual potency, another who sets up a failing actress with a brutal dictator to brush up his image and in hopes of repairing her own reputation at the same time. They are an ugly bunch. But the writing is so beautiful. In the end I guess I’m a little disappointed that the characters don’t do what I always want them to do in novels, they don’t learn from their mistakes and grow. And that disappoints me because the goon squad is on my tail too, and I want to avoid it, or at least hope to learn something from it before it’s too late.