Describing this delightful and quirky novel is going to be difficult, so I hope curious readers will try it even if I am unable to convey a sense of it.
First, I call it a novel, but it can be just as accurately described as linked short stories. Each chapter is written from the point of view of a different character who knows one or more of the other characters. The chapters all center around the subjects of music and public relations.
The book begins in New York with Sasha, who is the assistant to Bennie, a music executive, sometime after 9/11. She is on a desultory date with Alex, but she also has a problem with kleptomania. While in the bathroom, she steals a woman’s wallet and then has to watch while Alex gets involved in helping the woman.
Next is a middle-aged Bennie, who torments himself with feelings of shame about past experiences. He takes his son to visit a sister act in order to fire them for not producing an album in the specified amount of time. He realizes he is beginning to see his legendary taste diverge from that of his younger coworkers.
Then we jump back thirty years to Rhea, a teenager in San Francisco who is a member of a punk rock band called the Flaming Dildoes with her friends Bennie (yes, the same Bennie), Scott, Alison, and Jocelyn. Rhea observes Jocelyn’s budding relationship with a middle-aged record executive named Lou, who will become Bennie’s mentor. Rhea is dismayed as Lou gives Jocelyn drugs and gets her to perform sexual acts in public.
These are just the first of the vignettes, which range forward and backward in time over 40 years and extend in structure to a touching PowerPoint presentation and a parody of a celebrity interview. They make stops in Arizona, Italy, and South America but somehow center on New York. Fans of Egan will already be familiar with a certain type of hip, aware New Yorker that appears in her fiction.
By turns funny, touching, and sharp as a razor, Egan’s observations are always entertaining and her intelligence apparent. An obvious theme of this work is the effect of time on characters but another one is how technology seems to have sped time up, the book ending in a futuristic world where public relations is centered on the tastes of babies. The PowerPoint chapter shows us that another theme is pauses, in music and in life.
One of the things I wanted to do when I finished reading A Visit from the Goon Squad was to read it again so that I could know what I was looking for from the beginning and fully understand all the connections. And that is what I plan to do, having inserted the book into my pile of future reading to enjoy again.