Hipper than you – A Visit From the Goon Squad

Elvis Costello released his third album in the snowy winter of 1979.  In those days, Elvis was known as a ‘new wave’ rocker, not ‘punk,’ not mainstream, but hard to define, left of center, quirky.  Kicking off side two of Armed Forces was a vaguely martial, grim tale of trying to make it as a twenty-something in those days of Cold War stagflation:

“Mother, father, I’m doing so well…some grow just like their dads and some grow up too tall…some don’t grow up at all…but I’d never thought they’d put me in the goon squad.”

Shattered dreams, a shot of cold, hard pie-in-the-face reality, the advance of time, a tune that sounded like the soundtrack of a run-down Quinn Martin Production—you know, one of those old LA detective TV shows, which brings to mind another Elvis Costello tune from that time, Watching the Detectives, but that’s another story.

Author Jennifer Egan was in high school when Elvis’ Goon Squad came out, primetime of youthful music awareness and I bet she was headed into some sort of punk hipster phase.  Since then, she’s become a marvelous writer, acclaimed by many—hard to define, maybe it’s that left-of-center thing again.  Her fifth novel—A Visit From the Goon Squad has made lots of Top Ten lists for 2010. It’s an edgy collection of narrative strings, tales of loosely interconnected self-destructive characters that intersect with each other from the late ‘70s through today, each of them tangling with the armed forces of time in their own screwed up, human way.  Time—Ms. Egan’s own goon squad.

But by the end, I wanted to throw the book across the room.

Don’t get me wrong, Ms. Egan can spin some magical prose.  Fabulous descriptions of some characters that I ultimately didn’t care about.  Oh dear.

And risks?  I’m certainly not going to complain about writers who take chances, jazz around with narrative form or point of view and have high expectations of their readers.  And footnotes.  Fabulous.  There’s a chapter told in second person, a rarity, a writerly tour de force:

“You wind up at an after-hours club Bix knows about on Ludlow, crowded with people too high to go home.  You all dance together, sub-dividing the space between now and tomorrow until time seems to move backward.  You share a joint with a girl whose bangs are very short, leaving her bright forehead exposed…the sky is just getting light when the three of you leave the club…a croupy church bell starts up and you remember: it’s Sunday.”


And speaking of quirks, A Visit From the Goon Squad, famously, features seventy-seven pages of Powerpoint slides, that, in their own quirky way, are truly well written, entertaining and, once you get used to the form, actually work.  I have no problem with that.  One of the best parts of the novel.  In fact, the young girl who has created the PPT deck, Ally, is the most endearing character in the book.  Great voice. I cared about her. I wanted more of her.

But I didn’t get more of her.  Instead, we follow a goon squad of failed and flawed New York rock ‘n rollers, their kids, publicists, a movie starlet, a third world dictator, snooty tennis-playing Westchester Republicans and Sasha, a record company executive assistant who can’t resist snatching the occasional unguarded purse or wallet.  By the time I got to the end, I didn’t care about Sasha, or anybody else.  Sure, it’s a dark tale about the ravages of time, growing up and all that—kind of expected territory if you’re writing about rock ‘n roll.  And if you’re writing “spell-binding, compelling”  literary fiction, “about the human hunger for redemption”, it’s going to be dark.  Fine.  There are even a couple of epigraphs by Marcel Proust, clearly signaling—literary fiction to follow, sit up straight and pay attention.

But, ultimately, I didn’t care.  So what?  No rock ‘n roll joy, no fun.

So how did I get to the end?  Oddly enough, it was those PPT pages, which appear in the last third of the novel.  They go fast, they end and suddenly you’re slogging through the swamp of the wrap up, a blizzard of text messages—“th blu nyt th stRs u cant c th hum tht nevr gOs awy.”  You get the picture.  And we don’t find out how Sasha ends up.  We have no idea.  Maybe she’s the publicist of a club that’s hipper than you.  Or me.  And you and I can’t get in.

Elvis Costello’s Goon Squad was more fun.

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