By Ron Charles
Wednesday, June 16, 2010; C04
A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD
By Jennifer Egan
Knopf. 274 pp. $25.95
If Jennifer Egan is our reward for living through the self-conscious gimmicks and ironic claptrap of postmodernism, then it was all worthwhile. Her new novel, "A Visit From the Goon Squad," is a medley of voices -- in first, second and third person -- scrambled through time and across the globe with a 70-page PowerPoint presentation reproduced toward the end.
I know that sounds like the headache-inducing, aren't-I-brilliant tedium that sends readers running to nonfiction, but Egan uses all these stylistic and formal shenanigans to produce a deeply humane story about growing up and growing old in a culture corroded by technology and marketing. And what's best, every movement of this symphony of boomer life plays out through the modern music scene, a white-knuckle trajectory of cool, from punk to junk to whatever might lie beyond. My only complaint is that "A Visit From the Goon Squad" doesn't come with a CD.
The novel is really a collection of de-linked short stories, almost all of them triumphs of technical bravado and tender sympathy. Each relates in some way to Bennie Salazar, a teenage bass player in San Francisco who falls hard for punk groups like the Dead Kennedys and the Sleepers. He's not a particularly talented musician, but he has the passion, and he holds together a ragtag band of desperate friends who run through names: "the Crabs, the Croks, the Crimps, the Crunch, the Scrunch, the Gawks, the Gobs." They play for drinks in underground bars where the patrons throw garbage at them before storming the stage. No matter the injuries and destruction, afterward "everyone agrees the gig went well."
One of the most heartbreaking stories, "Ask Me If I Care," is told by a homely girl who hangs out with the band, adoring Bennie but settling for his pimply friend. "I understand how this is supposed to work," she says. "I'm the dog, so I get Marty." Egan's fidelity to the raw longing of adolescence scrapes away any romanticism about the ease of youth. These kids are hopelessly adrift, convinced that everyone else around them can hear the beat they can't.
A scarifying story called "Out of Body" may be the only really successful piece I've read in the second person. Tragic and headlong, this chapter about a young man who's tired of pretending accelerates like a falling weight, and the garbage dump he dives into along the East River is a graphic symbol of the putrid moral waste these kids swim through.
The book's mixed structure is a challenge but a profitable one that repeatedly places the kids' hopes and fears in ironic juxtaposition with their adult selves. It's nothing so simple as the cool kids turning into dumpy adults while the dweebs win the yuppie rat race, but as you may have noticed at the last college reunion, past performance is no guarantee of future results. Again and again in these stories, characters wonder and ask one another, What happened? How did time, that punishing goon squad, creep over us and leave us with these flabby bodies, these remote spouses, these children we love but can't reach? And why, among everything we've lost -- talent, potency, hair -- do we still retain that desperate thirst for belonging?
Egan explores this painful theme in several stories that show us Bennie Salazar's adult life from different points of view. Scott Hausmann, once the band's handsome teenage star, delivers a pained, manic monologue 20 years later when disappointment and envy have driven him mad. A Cheever-like story about Bennie's aspirational wife shows the couple anxious to hobnob with the country-club set that won't have them. But the very first time we see Bennie his career as the legendary founder of Sow's Ear records is already fading. Divorced and full of shame, sprinkling gold in coffee and spraying his underarms with OFF!, he manages a dwindling collection of mediocre songwriters. He hates the "bloodless constructions" of contemporary pop, "husks of music, lifeless and cold as the squares of office neon cutting the blue twilight." He knows "nostalgia is death in this business," but he can't help pining for the past.
Egan spins this out in stories driven by empathy and wit, and some of the unique pleasure of her novel comes from those initial moments of dislocation at the start of each episode. She darts off unpredictably, reorienting the perspective by making a tangential character of a previous chapter the center of a new one, some fresh angle we couldn't possibly anticipate -- to Italy, to Africa, to New York, to wherever the vast web of relations leads.
Not every leap lands with equal precision, of course. A madcap comedy involving a genocidal dictator who's eager to improve his public image strains against Egan's sophisticated wit. And a chapter of fatuous celebrity gossip fits the theme well, but it's self-consciously clever, a bit too wink-wink.
The novel's most radical element, that long PowerPoint presentation near the end, is touching and effective in the kind of poignant way one wouldn't expect from such a po-mo stunt. (Don't bother flipping through it in the bookstore; it gains its considerable resonance only after you've read the stories that precede it.) Graphics like this have always struck me as a bit gimmicky, but in Egan's shape-shifting novel, the slides of a precocious girl's PowerPoint journal serve as a weirdly believable expression of the way modern technology mediates even our deepest yearnings.
And how exhilarating to see this loose confederation of stories coalesce in a final chapter set in 2020, in a world remade by the war on terror. Egan's turn to social satire in the guise of speculative fiction is not just one more arresting track on her brilliant album. Here, in ways that surprise and delight again, she transcends slick boomer nostalgia and offers a testament to the redemptive power of raw emotion in an age of synthetic sound and glossy avatars. Turn up the music, skip the college reunion and curl up with "The Goon Squad" instead.
Charles is the fiction editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/roncharles.