A Visit From The Goon Squad is a novel about time, and music, and how the two of them work to make connections across people's lives. Its 13 chapters skip to and fro across America, with excursions to Africa and Italy. It skips, too, through time, back to the early 1970s, and into the near future, and whirls through a kaleidoscope of perspectives, with each chapter narrated by, or through, a different character.
There's something of a constant in the book's milieu, largely within the orbit of the music industry, as it progresses from the glory days of punk to the digitised pap the labels peddle today. Indeed, the novel could be Jennifer Egan's tribute to the scratchy old vinyl LP: it is divided into two "sides" (A and B) and it's instructive to think of the chapters as tracks on an album.
Each functions as a standalone piece of writing, though there's never any doubt that they go together to make a whole, an ambitious, suggestive and highly polished work. It throws up perceptive theories of cultural consumption, and flatters the reader by presenting its characters as discrete slivers of personality to be pieced together, as if from a collection of different jigsaw puzzles.
If there's a central presence, it's Sasha, a damaged industry hanger-on we meet in the opening chapter, confessing yet another instance of kleptomania to her therapist. In the second chapter, a few years previously, she's the sexy assistant to washed-up record producer Bennie. Then we jump back 20 years to see Bennie as an LA high-school punk, bassist in the Flaming Dildos, as they come under the wing of dissolute, exploitative producer Lou, and back again to see Lou on safari in Africa with a band and his two children.
It's a beautifully constructed opening, as if the narrative is a stone skimmed across a lake, and the scenes the points of contact, each making ripples that overlap with the next. But wait: Albert, their local guide will, Egan tells us, 35 years from now "get caught in the tribal violence between the Kikuyu and the Luo and will die in a fire." One of his sons, Joe, will study in America and marry an American named Lulu.
There they are, eight chapters and 270 pages later, Joe and Lulu: Lulu being the daughter of PR maven La Doll (Chapter 8), La Doll the boss of Stephanie (Chapter 7), Stephanie the second wife of Bennie (Chapter 2) and sister of journalist Jules (Chapter 9) who was jailed for assaulting the film star Kitty Jackson - the same Kitty Jackson employed by La Doll to hang out with an African dictator as a PR stunt (Chapter 8 again).
Looked at like this, the novel's scope seems awfully shrunken, as if seen down the wrong end of a telescope. To this extent, Egan's novel skulks somewhat in the shadow of Don DeLillo's Underworld, which has the size and patience to stretch those connections between people until they snap. A Visit from the Goon Squad is seductive, and brilliant, but its fractured surface hides a meticulous organisation. This is a a Fabergé egg of a novel, which isn't meant entirely as praise.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies