Critics generally agree that Jennifer Egan‘s new novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad, is a very good one, though there seems to be little consensus on what, exactly, makes it so good. Entertainment Weekly gives it an A- for being metafiction about human foibles; the Millions celebrates it as a novel about childhood; the Associated Press admires its commentary on the internet and social networking; as if to suggest that there’s no way to pin the damn thing down, the New York Press says it’s “a profound and glorious exploration of the fullness and complexity of the human condition.”
A Visit From the Goon Squad is indeed a good book, but it also has a flaw that’s echoed in the disorganized responses it’s received—Egan invents a host of characters, but she doesn’t always seem to have a firm grasp on them, or on what it is she might want us to think about them. (Quick plot summary: The novel loosely revolves around the music industry, starting with the San Francisco punk rock scene in the late 70s and ending in the 2020s. The two lead characters are Bennie, a record exec, and Sasha, his assistant, though the book features many others.) It’s not a comic novel, though Egan enjoys satirizing character types: the publicist who takes a gig improving the image of a genocidal dictator; the sleazy music-industry type who preys on young women; wealthy country-club types with awful politics; the washed-up punk guitarist making an unlikely comeback. In one chapter we meet Jules, the brother of Bennie’s wife, who’s just been released from prison and a model case of rehabilitation (he won a special citation from the PEN Prison Writing Program). Two chapters later, we learn about the cause of Jules’ incarceration, in the form of a Vanity Fair-ish profile by him that describes dinner with a celebrity and the mental breakdown that prompts his prison term. Throughout, it’s unclear what Egan means to criticize here. Vapid Vanity Fair profiles? Celebrity culture in general? Needy writers? If we’re meant to come to some understanding about Jules’ mental plight (or sympathy for the starlet he assaults), framing it around hollow magazine-profile writing doesn’t help do it.
And if Egan means to describe “fullness and complexity of the human condition” by talking about its hollowness, then let me the hell out of this book—the irony is too thick in there. There’s “seriocomic,” and then there’s undercutting your characterizations in the name of “complexity.” The novel isn’t a failure—Sasha’s character, confused and kleptomaniacal as she is, doesn’t suffer from Egan’s overworking. But there’s really only one point in the book where Egan’s tone stabilizes and it couldn’t be more clear who her characters are and why we might care about them. It’s the chapter-in-PowerPoint you might have heard about, and which you can read in full here.
“Great Rock and Roll Pauses” is narrated by Sasha’s 12-year-old daughter, Alison, sometime in the 2020s. The environment has apparently crapped out enough that the desert is awash in solar panels. And attention spans have apparently crapped out enough that children are taught to write not on pages but on presentation slides, with a focus on draconian simplicity. Alison tells Sasha some of slogans she’s learning in writing class (slide 21): “Give us the issues, not the tissues!” “A word-wall is a long haul!” “Charts should illuminate, not complicate!” “Add a graphic and increase your traffic!” This seems set up to be another human characteristic that Egan might poke holes in—so it’s come to this: we’re teaching kids to write in PowerPoint. But a funny thing happens on the way to rhetorical dystopia. As Alison literally charts her brother’s obsession with finding the pauses and false endings in rock songs, Egan allows a host of childhood concerns to spill out—her need to understand her mom’s past, the way she misses her often-absent father, the way her brother’s fixation has to become her own fixation, for the sake of the stability of the family.
PowerPoint also forces Egan to write with a concision that’s often absent in the rest of the book. Slide 54 is particularly lovely in its simplicity: “The desert is quiet and busy. I hear faint clicks like the scratchy pause in ‘Bernadette.’ There is a hum like the pause in ‘Closing Time’ by Semisonic. The whole desert is a pause.” It helps, too, that Egan is assuming the voice of an adolescent, which makes her eagerness to make things plain and to keep peace in her family all the more affecting. The final slides, in their curious, brutal way, reveal how hard those tasks are going to be for her. But there’s an optimism embedded in that chapter, too: No matter what the future does to the way we communicate, Egan seems to say, we can find a way to take a story and make it meaningful.