Loads of Learned Lumber

Monday, May 23, 2011

Jennifer Egan, _A Visit from the Goon Squad_

AMONG MY RESOLUTIONS for the remainder of May 2011 is to finish at least a few of the books I left one-half, one-third, or one-quarter read in 2010. I started with this one... we'll see how far I get.

The Pulitzer people and I are not often on the same wavelength, but this book is a gem. It has the same jaded fascination with the pinging adrenal buzz of the fashion/entertainment world as Look at Me, the same probing of the way friendship can be braided with abandonment and betrayal as The Keep, but it's a stronger book than either of those.

It has some of the effect of a collection of short stories, as each chapter could be read independently, but works well as a novel, since we re-encounter characters from story to story, a peripheral figure in one chapter becoming the POV character in another. Each story/chapter focuses on a fairly narrow time frame of a day or a few days, but since we see characters at several different stages in their lives (and not in chronological order, just to make things more interesting), and since Egan has an extraordinary deftness at filling in antecedent action in a swiftly-paced paragraph, we get a novel-esque depth of time.

And time is our theme here. Although the music industry types we meet seem capable of hiring thugs, and although "The Goon Squad" would be an OK name for the kind of late 70s/early 80s alt-indie bands we meet in these pages, the "goon" of the title is time itself. Time, too, can rearrange your facial design, cripple you for life, leave you for dead. Much of the novel is about how we lose things, leave them behind, how we change, how things are taken away.

Intriguingly, though, a lot of it is about how time also restores things, about unexpected second chances, how life can resume after a pause. Lincoln Blake, a mildly autistic teenager in the second-to-last story (which takes the form of a PowerPoint presentation by his sister Alison) collects pauses in popular songs. Bix, an early e-mail adopter we glimpse in a story set in the early 90s, foresees a time when the Internet will do what people used to imagine heaven would do, i.e., bring back into your life everyone you ever knew. Scotty, a brilliant guitarist who did a Syd Barrett, re-emerges to play a legendary free concert in the "Footprint," Egan imagining the Twin Towers site transformed into an open-air performance space.

And then there are Alison Blake and Lulu, who, like the Miranda/Perdita/Marina characters in Shakespeare's late plays, have the power to make the world seem new again.

Delightful to find in the acknowledgements a shout-out to Jacob Slichter's excellent rock-n-roll memoir So You Wanna Be a Rock and Roll Star, which, among other things, describes the genesis of that pause in Semisonic's "Closing Time," which quite rightly makes Lincoln's list.

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