Review: 'A Visit From the Goon Squad'

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A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD, by Jennifer Egan. Alfred A. Knopf, 273 pp., $25.95.

Opening with an epigraph from Proust and closing with a disturbing yet determinedly hopeful vision of America in the 2020s, Jennifer Egan's bold, thrilling new novel examines the sea change from an analog world to a digital universe as it plays out in the lives of vividly imagined, richly complicated individuals.

At the center of "A Visit From the Goon Squad" are Bennie, an executive in the music business, and his longtime assistant, Sasha. Around them swirl Bennie's former bandmates from a late-'70s punk band, Sasha's classmates at NYU in the early '90s, a starlet who was attacked by Bennie's brother-in-law near the turn of the 21st century, the publicist for a genocidal general, and the publicist's daughter, who turns up later as Bennie's new assistant.

Egan jumps in and out of these people's stories, spotlighting them at moments of transition. "I'm beginning my adult life right now, on this night," thinks Bennie's coked-up friend Rhea, sitting with a middle-age record producer who's just given her some cocaine. Adulthood often proves disappointing and disorienting. "I feel like everything is ending," Bennie's wife tells her brother; it's not long after 9/11, but she's thinking of her marriage, the sale of Bennie's record company and the move to an affluent suburb that makes palpable the end of their wild youth and the loss of their ideals.

"Time's a goon," declares an aging rock star, and the characters' sense of time passing, of things not turning out the way they intended, gives Egan's nonsequential narrative its thematic continuity and emotional power. She commands our attention through frequent shifts in place, period and point of view because she can so swiftly capture a personality and a social scene. In her most stylistically unconventional chapter, a PowerPoint presentation by Sasha's 12-year-old daughter paints a lyrical portrait of a loving, tension-riddled family living in the California desert, where Sasha makes collages from found objects, "tiny pieces of our lives."

As her tale moves into the near future, Egan rivals any cyberpunk novelist with her grimly plausible extrapolations of current trends: "kiddie handsets" that enable toddlers to shop online; young adults more comfortable with texting than face-to-face conversation; trees that bloom in January; the constant drone of helicopters overhead, "the price of safety." Yet the burned-out musician who mutters, "The goon won," is giving a concert in lower Manhattan, "where the density of children was now the highest in the nation . . . the incarnation of faith in those who weren't aware of having any left."

When the "parrot" paid by Bennie to create " 'authentic' word-of-mouth" for that concert, confesses, "I don't know what happened to me," his employer knows: "You grew up," Bennie replies, "just like the rest of us."

Egan's ability to mingle the troubling issues of the Internet age with eternal human questions about the nature of self and the consequences of compromise, evident in such earlier works as "Look at Me" and "The Keep," reach a new level of strength and simplicity here. "A Visit From the Goon Squad" reaffirms her stature as one of our most thoughtful and exciting writers.

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