Part novel, part short story collection, part memoir and even part PowerPoint, Jennifer Egan’s 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad, is hard to categorize. After reading it back in August, I’ve come to categorize it as one of my favorite books that I’ve read all year. Thanks in part to its powerful prose and striking insight into the landscape (and future) of our digital world, Egan’s characters are wholly complex and flawed. It is hard to nail down a single protagonist as we are introduced to a handful of new characters each chapter. However, their connections to each other slowly reveal themselves as time passes throughout the book, and in time we understand the significance each character plays in the lives of one another.
There are several themes that echo throughout Goon Squad, but one of the most persistent is the relationship each character has with music. Bennie represents the more “old school” music industry where as a record producer he works with musicians and artists who vie for grit and soul in their songs. Sasha, Bennie’s assistant, eventually has children of her own and they live in a time where the popularity of music is determined not by talent, but by quality of noise and sound waves that can be controlled remotely. Obviously Egan could have chosen several industries to comment on, but the fact that she chose music, a pure expression of self and soul, is poignant. It is one of the most personal ways someone can communicate and portray themselves. Music also has such a rich history that one can assume its role is culturally significant (a conversation about the universality of music is also relevant).
Another idea that Goon Squad continues to revolve around is the question of authenticity—authenticity as it relates to ourselves as well as within our relationships with others. In the digital age where facts and figures can so easily be altered, what and who is authentic or real becomes more difficult to distill. Unfortunately, with the aid of technology and the Internet, it is now easier than ever to distort the projection of the person we claim to be. As more and more about ourselves is revealed online, less and less of our true selves can be masked by lies. At one point in the book, two teenage girls, Rhea and Alice, are contemplating their twisted love lives. Rhea has this moment of clarity and as she looks at her best friend, she thinks, “I can’t tell if she’s actually real, or if she’s stopped caring if she’s real or not. Or is not caring what makes a person real?” Rhea is contemplating about the very essence of her best friend’s basic intentions. After all of the years she has known her, this absolute introspection on their relationship, or the projection of their relationship, is questioned. It is these precise moments of clarity that really ground the novel and elevate it to another level of fiction.
As much as music and authenticity play into this book as larger ideas, the thread that holds this web of characters together is their relationship to the passing of time. I understand that time is such a vague and broad concept and addressing its importance in a novel could be deemed obvious, but because time barely exists in this novel, I find it important to mention. We visit the main characters several times throughout their lives, checking in on them as if we were old friends. Because of the book’s (anti-)structure, we are able to see each character through their own eyes, as well as through the people closest to them. We watch them age and grow into the people they promise they’d never become and the people they never thought they were strong enough to be. We watch them laugh and cry, learn and listen, fight and fail. It’s a beautiful comment on life as a whole for the very fact that this is what happens to us all. Here, the theme of music is even more interconnected—each chapter is dedicated to a different character and music references are echoed through the text. The music plays and pauses as each life is lived out.
Throughout the book, the reader is often left questioning both the characters’ intentions as well as Egan’s. Who can we trust? What is the importance of each scene Egan decides to share with the reader? The end of the book sheds light and answers questions that the reader didn’t always think to ask in the first place, proving how smart of a writer Egan truly is. Because even though these characters’ lives initially appear chaotic and complicated, it is in the final moments and chapters that their hidden agendas are finally revealed. Those are the moments that make the book most satisfying and compelling.
We live in a world governed by our dependence on technology. From the time our alarm clock sounds in the morning to the text messages we send to our loved ones before going to sleep each night, we find our minutes and moments often dedicated to our devices. And as true as that reality is, Egan doesn’t shy away from what our future could entail. In the not-so-distant future, the quality of authenticity could rapidly diminish, and talent and truth could be even harder to decipher. But that doesn’t mean we’ll ever stop trying.