REMEMBER THE MAN in the Paul Simon song Slip Slidin Away who wore his passion for his woman like a thorny crown? He told her: My love for yous so overpowering/ Im afraid that I will disappear. In A Visit from the Goon Squad, the extraordinary new work of fiction by Brooklyn resident Jennifer Egan (author of Look at Me and The Keep), there is a similarly haunting description of a mans effortsspawned by fearto suppress the consuming love he feels for his wife. Ted had taken the passion he felt for Susan and folded it in half, so he no longer had a drowning, helpless feeling when he glimpsed her beside him in bed: her ropy arms and soft, generous ass. And then hed kept folding it in half. His desire was so small in the end that Ted could slip it inside his desk or a pocket and forget about it, and this gave him a feeling of safety and accomplishment, of having dismantled a perilous apparatus that might have extinguished them both.
Forget what literati the world over say about the demise of the big novel, the kind that patiently threads its way through the tangled knot of humankinds shared urges, fears, frailties and joys. A Visit from the Goon Squad admittedly cannot be described either as a novel or a collection of short stories, but it is a great work of fiction, a profound and glorious exploration of the fullness and complexity of the human condition.
The most important of the books numerous characterssome recurring, others transientwho populate its 13 stand-alone but intertwining chapters are: Sasha, a troubled and kleptomaniac woman whose rocky journey to stability includes a detour through the slums of Naples, Italy; and Bennie, an aspiring punk rocker in San Francisco who becomes a music label executive in New York City, where he hires Sasha as his assistant while grappling with a painful divorce, an uncommunicative son and a waning sex drive. Music is also central to the story of Scotty, Bennies bandmate from San Francisco, who battles a mental disorder before making an unexpected comeback in New York, and Lou, Bennies flamboyant mentor, whose philandering takes its toll on his life and that of his son Rolph, who commits suicide.
Times a goon, right? asks Bosco, a washed-out rocker on Bennies label. Egan examines the changes and ravages wrought by Father Time on her characters, employing a non-chronological approach that sometimes allows us to glimpse them in old age before being exposed to them as youngsters. But make no mistake. Despite its concern with the effects of senescence, A Visit from the Goon Squad is never grim or morbid. This is due in large part to Egans heartwarming belief that love and the nurturing of children compensate for disappointments, tribulations and ultimately even the end of life. We see this perhaps most acutely with Sasha; after a troubled youth that includes the death of her best friend, she finds fulfillment in marriage and family.
In almost each of her 13 chapters, Egan carves out a visible but unobtrusive space for backdrop. She conjures the ambience of the late 1970s San Francisco punk rock scene, a safari in Africa, the skid row of Naples and the numinous beauty of certain NYC mornings: Someone seems to be leading the way toward the Sixth Street overpass to the East River, but really youre all moving in tandem, like on a Ouija board. The sun blazes into view, spinning bright and metallic against your eyeballs, ionizing the waters surface so you cant see a bit of pollution or crud underneath. It looks mystical, biblical. It raises a lump in your throat.
The books only fault of note occurs in the final chapter, set approximately a decade from today, and assumes the form of a disconcertingly direct assault on various cultural ills, including the corrosive influence of technology. Earlier, Egan employs sly but pointed humor to hint at this phenomenon. But then she confronts global warming, ubiquitous police surveillance and security measures, the bankruptcy of U.S. politics and the morallyand even linguistically corrupting aspects of technology. Some of this is tongue-in-cheek, though the cumulative effect of Egans repeated digs is tiresome.
Yet throughout the bookeven in the less-than-stellar final chapterEgan keeps the focus on the tragedies, fears, triumphs and joys of her characters. Never are geographic settings, pop culture trivia or even technological revolutions allowed to overshadow these defining features of existence. Even a curious chapter in the form of charts and graphs ostensibly about pauses in rock songs is really about a (possibly autistic) childs preoccupation with the inevitability of death. Thats the staggeringly original Rolling Stone-meets-sprawling-American-ensemble tale of A Visit from the Goon Squad.
>>A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD, by Jennifer Egan. Knopf, 288 pages, $24.95.