This is a sort-of response to Katherine Hill's post, Time's a Goon, which was the first place I heard about Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad. I've finally read it, and it's great. And, on the same Sunday that I went kayak-surfing, it compelled me to put pen to paper and jot down what it was making me think about - at the cafe where I had breakfast in Liberty Station, waiting for one of the infrequent San Diego buses, and on the bus itself.
That was a few weeks ago now (and I'd only read half of the book) but at long last, I'm raising the tone of this blog with some literary criticism:
There's a lot of attentive listening to punk in Good Squad, most of it done by Bennie Salazar, the music producer who, along with his onetime assistant Sasha, forms the pair around which the book loosely orbits (this is disputable, but it's how I read it). This intrigues me, because I've always thought of punk as one of the few respectable genres that did genuinely all sound pretty much the same: guitars cranked up until their amps are straining, bass pounding the root of about three chords per song, big finish about two minutes later, and then on to the next one. Because of this, I've never really understood why people listened to lots of different punk bands - I could understand the appeal of the sound, but I didn't think of it as music that rewarded attentive listening. And this is the only book I've ever come across where punk, as a type of music rather than a social milieu, is very important. And there's a really nice quote about what Bennie gets from listening to '70s West Coast punk:
Driving to pick up his son, Bennie alternated between the Sleepers and the Dead Kennedys, San Francisco bands he'd grown up with. He listened for muddiness, the sense of actual musicians playing actual instruments in an actual room.
'But', Egan adds on the next page, 'the deep thrill of these old songs lay, for Bennie, in the rapturous surges of sixteen-ness they induced.'
That is so spot-on.
There's another moment of listening that stuck with me - when one of the narrators, who is clearly pretty far gone, is describing standing outside a gala event in order to work out whether, as a recluse who read a lot he was experiencing life any differently from people who are having actual experiences, observes that the horn section he can hear coming from inside is 'pretty weak in the tenor sax department'. And by this, you know that whatever's happening to the rest of his mind, he's still musically acute.
The book that Good Squad most reminds me of is Trainspotting. Not for the drug use, of which there is some in each (though much less in Trainspotting than most people think - as I recall, most of its many narrators are NOT junkies), but because both books are collections of narratives told about (and by) different people, shifting backwards and forwards in time driven by a logic that feels right, but that I'd hate to be asked to explain. So they are both just on the edge of being short story collections, but they are both, unmistakeably, novels. And in both, the medium offers the same obvious, but startling message: that every life in the world is equally important to the person living it. Novels tend to suggest the opposite, particularly novels by writers as lethal with a putdown as Egan is. But you learn not too laugh too hard at the character who gets dismissed in one chapter, as you're likely to be living in their head a few pages later.
Other than that, I wholeheartedly endorse Katherine's assessment:
Egan, who I'd only encountered in short fiction here and there, is a relentlessly hip and intellectual writer with deep sense of life's pains and an even deeper sympathy for her characters. This sensibility carries her through a layered narrative and more than makes up for the few missteps she inevitably makes along the way. (Hey, novels are messy, okay?)
The thing is, the missteps, like everything in this book, are big, bold, and ambitious. It's just great. You should read it.