A Visit From the Goon Squad reminds me of abstract art. You don’t get it at first and then finally when you think you’re starting to get it you realize you probably have to read the whole book again just so you could pull apart it’s narrative structure – nevermind character development, plot and what it does to your heart.
The book essentially follows the lives of Bennie and Sasha. Bennie was a once famous music producer and Sasha is his assistant. The backdrop is the music industry which spans Bennie’s early punk days in California as a teenager to him as a sixty year old man struggling against the changes in a collapsing and every changing industry. Sasha is his longtime troubled kleptomaniac assistant.
How we get to the story of these two characters and sometimes broken lives is told by telling the stories of select other people who’s lives intersect with Bennie and Sasha. Does that make sense? There is no continuous narrative arc which truthfully I found a little strange at first because I just wanted the goods on Bennie and Sasha and each chapter seemed to be about someone else – but then slowly the tableau becomes apparent and you can see the trajectory of two lives lost and then found again (or not but that’s just life) including those of the people around them.
When I think about it – the structure Egan creates is a closer approximation to life in some ways. For example, I have my own life story (which appears as random memories to me and only as a narrative with select details if I or someone else chooses to tell it) and the people who know me have their stories about me including the life changing intersections we all share with each other. That’s how this book works I think.
In the end you have your ‘ah hah’ moment when all the disparate dots come together. Also, Egan frequently drops bread crumbs along the way by unexpectedly telling the reader what happens to a character 20 to 30 years down the road and there’s something very satisfying in that.
Two things that stand out in my mind are this. There is a line in the book when one of the secondary characters recognizes that a single moment in her life has transitioned her from childhood/teenage years to adulthood and that was worth the cost of the book itself. That was a beautiful and difficult moment that I have been left pondering since. What is the single moment that takes a person from one being one thing to another? That transitions you from one life to another, from being one kind of person to another?
Item two relates to what I have just written – I think that many of the characters in this book are forced away or travel away from their innocence Jocelyn/Sasha/Rob/Drew/Bennie/Rebecca/Lou/S – they travel away from potential, possibility, happiness, neat happy endings . Then over the course of the years you witness those small but momentous decisions or life experiences that bring the characters to that next place in their lives. Of course, real life works this way too. It was an interesting book.