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On Sale: June 08, 2010
Pages: 288 | ISBN: 978-0-307-59362-7
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

NATIONAL BESTSELLER
National Book Critics Circle Award Winner
PEN/Faulkner Award Finalist
A New York Times Book Review Best Book

One of the Best Books of the Year:
 Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, The Daily Beast, The Miami Herald, The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Newsday, NPR's On Point, O, the Oprah Magazine, People, Publishers Weekly, Salon, San Francisco Chronicle, Seattle Times, Slate, Time, The Washington Post, and Village Voice

Bennie is an aging former punk rocker and record executive. Sasha is the passionate, troubled young woman he employs. Here Jennifer Egan brilliantly reveals their pasts, along with the inner lives of a host of other characters whose paths intersect with theirs. With music pulsing on every page, A Visit from the Goon Squad is a startling, exhilarating novel of self-destruction and redemption.




From the Trade Paperback edition.

Excerpt

Chapter 1

Found Objects

It began the usual way, in the bathroom of the Lassimo Hotel. Sasha was adjusting her yellow eye shadow in the mirror when she noticed a bag

on the floor beside the sink that must have belonged to the woman

whose peeing she could faintly hear through the vaultlike door of a toilet stall. Inside the rim of the bag, barely visible, was a wallet made of pale green leather. It was easy for Sasha to recognize, looking back, that the peeing woman's blind trust had provoked her: We live in a city where people will steal the hair off your head if you give them half a chance, but you leave your stuff lying in plain sight and expect it to be waiting for you when you come back? It made her want to teach the woman a lesson. But this wish only camouflaged the deeper feeling Sasha always had: that at, tender wallet, offering itself to her hand-it seemed so dull, so life-as-usual to just leave it there rather than seize the moment, accept the challenge, take the leap, fly the coop, throw caution to the wind, live dangerously ("I get it," Coz, her therapist, said), and take the fucking thing.

"You mean steal it."

He was trying to get Sasha to use that word, which was harder to avoid in the case of a wallet than with a lot of the things she'd lifted over the past year, when her condition (as Coz referred to it) had begun to accelerate: five sets of keys, fourteen pairs of sunglasses, a child's striped scarf, binoculars, a cheese grater, a pocketknife, twenty-eight bars of soap, and eighty-five pens, ranging from cheap ballpoints she'd used to sign debit-card slips to the aubergine Visconti that cost two hundred sixty dollars online, which she'd lifted from her former boss's lawyer during a contracts meeting. Sasha no longer took anything from stores-their cold, inert goods didn't tempt her. Only from people.

"Okay," she said. "Steal it."

Sasha and Coz had dubbed that feeling she got the "personal challenge," as in: taking the wallet was a way for Sasha to assert her toughness, her individuality. What they needed to do was switch things around in her head so that the challenge became not taking the wallet but leaving it. That would be the cure, although Coz never used words like "cure." He wore funky sweaters and let her call him Coz, but he was old school inscrutable, to the point where Sasha couldn't tell if he was gay or straight, if he'd written famous books, or if (as she sometimes suspected) he was one of those escaped cons who impersonate surgeons and wind

up leaving their operating tools inside people's skulls. Of course, these questions could have been resolved on Google in less than a minute, but they were useful questions (according to Coz), and so far, Sasha had resisted.

The couch where she lay in his office was blue leather and very soft. Coz liked the couch, he'd told her, because it relieved them both of the burden of eye contact. "You don't like eye contact?" Sasha had asked. It seemed like a weird thing for a therapist to admit.

"I find it tiring," he'd said. "This way, we can both look where we want."

"Where will you look?"

He smiled. "You can see my options."

"Where do you usually look? When people are on the couch."

"Around the room," Coz said. "At the ceiling. Into space."

"Do you ever sleep?"

"No."

Sasha usually looked at the window, which faced the street, and tonight, as she continued her story, was rippled with rain. She'd glimpsed the wallet, tender and overripe as a peach. She'd plucked it from the woman's bag and slipped it into her own small handbag, which she'd zipped shut before the sound of peeing had stopped. She'd flicked open the bathroom door and floated back through the lobby to the bar. She and the wallet's owner had never seen each other.

Prewallet, Sasha had been in the grip of a dire evening: lame date (yet another) brooding behind dark bangs, sometimes glancing at the flat-screen TV, where a Jets game seemed to interest him more than Sasha's admittedly overhandled tales of Bennie Salazar, her old boss, who was famous for founding the Sow's Ear record label and who also (Sasha happened to know) sprinkled gold flakes into his coffee-as an aphrodisiac, she suspected-and sprayed pesticide in his armpits.

Postwallet, however, the scene tingled with mirthful possibility. Sasha felt the waiters eyeing her as she sidled back to the table holding her handbag with its secret weight. She sat down and took a sip of her Melon Madness Martini and cocked her head at Alex. She smiled her yes/no smile. "Hello," she said.

The yes/no smile was amazingly effective.

"You're happy," Alex said.

"I'm always happy," Sasha said. "Sometimes I just forget."

Alex had paid the bill while she was in the bathroom-clear proof that he'd been on the verge of aborting their date. Now he studied her. "You feel like going somewhere else?"

They stood. Alex wore black cords and a white button-up shirt. He was a legal secretary. On e-mail he'd been fanciful, almost goofy, but in person he seemed simultaneously anxious and bored. She could tell that he was in excellent shape, not from going to the gym but from being young enough that his body was still imprinted with whatever sports he'd played in high school and college. Sasha, who was thirty-five, had passed that point. Still, not even Coz knew her real age. The closest anyone had come to guessing it was thirty-one, and most put her in her twenties. She worked out daily and avoided the sun. Her online profiles all listed her as twenty-eight.

As she followed Alex from the bar, she couldn't resist unzipping her purse and touching the fat green wallet just for a second, for the contraction it made her feel around her heart.

"You're aware of how the theft makes you feel," Coz said. "To the point where you remind yourself of it to improve your mood. But do you think about how it makes the other person feel?"

Sasha tipped back her head to look at him. She made a point of doing this now and then, just to remind Coz that she wasn't an idiot-she knew the question had a right answer. She and Coz were collaborators, writing a story whose end had already been determined: she would get well. She would stop stealing from people and start caring again about the things that had once guided her: music; the network of friends she'd made when she first came to New York; a set of goals she'd scrawled on a big sheet of newsprint and taped to the walls of her early apartments:

Find a band to manage
Understand the news
Study Japanese
Practice the harp

"I don't think about the people," Sasha said.

"But it isn't that you lack empathy," Coz said. "We know that, because of the plumber."

Sasha sighed. She'd told Coz the plumber story about a month ago, and he'd found a way to bring it up at almost every session since. The plumber was an old man, sent by Sasha's landlord to investigate a leak in the apartment below hers. He'd appeared in Sasha's doorway, tufts of gray on his head, and within a minute-boom-he'd hit the floor and crawled under her bathtub like an animal fumbling its way into a familiar hole. The fingers he'd groped toward the bolts behind the tub were grimed to cigar stubs, and reaching made his sweatshirt hike up, exposing a soft white back. Sasha turned away, stricken by the old man's abasement, anxious to leave for her temp job, except that the plumber was talking to her, asking about the length and frequency of her showers. "I never use it," she told him curtly. "I shower at the gym." He nodded without acknowledging her rudeness, apparently used to it. Sasha's nose began to prickle; she shut her eyes and pushed hard on both temples.

Opening her eyes, she saw the plumber's tool belt lying on the floor at her feet. It had a beautiful screwdriver in it, the orange translucent handle gleaming like a lollipop in its worn leather loop, the silvery shaft sculpted, sparkling. Sasha felt herself contract around the object in a single yawn of appetite; she needed to hold the screwdriver, just for a minute. She bent her knees and plucked it noiselessly from the belt. Not a bangle jangled; her bony hands were spastic at most things, but she was good at this-made for it, she often thought, in the first drifty moments after lifting something. And once the screwdriver was in her hand, she felt instant relief from the pain of having an old soft-backed man snuffling under her tub, and then something more than relief: a blessed indifference, as if the very idea of feeling pain over such a thing were baffling.

"And what about after he'd gone?" Coz had asked when Sasha told him the story. "How did the screwdriver look to you then?"

There was a pause. "Normal," she said.

"Really. Not special anymore?"

"Like any screwdriver."

Sasha had heard Coz shift behind her and felt something happen in the room: the screwdriver, which she'd placed on the table (recently supplemented with a second table) where she kept the things she'd lifted, and which she'd barely looked at since, seemed to hang in the air of Coz's office. It floated between them: a symbol.

"And how did you feel?" Coz asked quietly. "About having taken it from the plumber you pitied?"

How did she feel? How did she feel? There was a right answer, of course. At times Sasha had to fight the urge to lie simply as a way of depriving Coz of it.

"Bad," she said. "Okay? I felt bad. Shit, I'm bankrupting myself to pay for you-obviously I get that this isn't a great way to live."

More than once, Coz had tried to connect the plumber to Sasha's father, who had disappeared when she was six. She was careful not to indulge this line of thinking. "I don't remember him," she told Coz. "I have nothing to say." She did this for Coz's protection and her own- they were writing a story of redemption, of fresh beginnings and second chances. But in that direction lay only sorrow.

Sasha and Alex crossed the lobby of the Lassimo Hotel in the direction of the street. Sasha hugged her purse to her shoulder, the warm ball of wallet snuggled in her armpit. As they passed the angular budded branches by the big glass doors to the street, a woman zigzagged into their path. "Wait," she said. "You haven't seen-I'm desperate."

Sasha felt a twang of terror. It was the woman whose wallet she'd taken-she knew this instantly, although the person before her had nothing in common with the blithe, raven-haired wallet owner she'd pictured. This woman had vulnerable brown eyes and flat pointy shoes that clicked too loudly on the marble floor. There was plenty of gray in her frizzy brown hair.

Sasha took Alex's arm, trying to steer him through the doors. She felt his pulse of surprise at her touch, but he stayed put. "Have we seen what?" he said.

"Someone stole my wallet. My ID is gone, and I have to catch a plane tomorrow morning. I'm just desperate!" She stared beseechingly at both of them. It was the sort of frank need that New Yorkers quickly learn how to hide, and Sasha recoiled. It had never occurred to her that the woman was from out of town.

"Have you called the police?" Alex asked.

"The concierge said he would call. But I'm also wondering-could it have fallen out somewhere?" She looked helplessly at the marble floor around their feet. Sasha relaxed slightly. This woman was the type who annoyed people without meaning to; apology shadowed her movements even now, as she followed Alex to the concierge's desk. Sasha trailed behind.

"Is someone helping this person?" she heard Alex ask.

The concierge was young and spiky haired. "We've called the police," he said defensively.

Alex turned to the woman. "Where did this happen?"

"In the ladies' room. I think."

"Who else was there?"

"No one."

"It was empty?"

"There might have been someone, but I didn't see her."

Alex swung around to Sasha. "You were just in the bathroom," he said. "Did you see anyone?"

"No," she managed to say. She had Xanax in her purse, but she couldn't open her purse. Even with it zipped, she feared that the wallet would blurt into view in some way that she couldn't control, unleashing a cascade of horrors: arrest, shame, poverty, death.

Alex turned to the concierge. "How come I'm asking these questions instead of you?" he said. "Someone just got robbed in your hotel. Don't you have, like, security?"

The words "robbed" and "security" managed to pierce the soothing backbeat that pumped through not just the Lassimo but every hotel like it in New York City. There was a mild ripple of interest from the lobby.

"I've called security," the concierge said, adjusting his neck. "I'll call them again."

Sasha glanced at Alex. He was angry, and the anger made him recognizable in a way that an hour of aimless chatter (mostly hers, it was true) had not: he was new to New York. He came from someplace smaller. He had a thing or two to prove about how people should treat one another.

Two security guys showed up, the same on TV and in life: beefy guys whose scrupulous politeness was somehow linked to their willingness to crack skulls. They dispersed to search the bar. Sasha wished feverishly that she'd left the wallet there, as if this were an impulse she'd barely resisted.

"I'll check the bathroom," she told Alex, and forced herself to walk slowly around the elevator bank. The bathroom was empty. Sasha opened her purse, took out the wallet, unearthed her vial of Xanax, and popped one between her teeth. They worked faster if you chewed them. As the caustic taste flooded her mouth, she scanned the room, trying to decide where to ditch the wallet: In the stall? Under the sink? The decision paralyzed her. She had to do this right, to emerge unscathed, and if she could, if she did-she had a frenzied sense of making a promise to Coz.

The bathroom door opened, and the woman walked in. Her frantic eyes met Sasha's in the bathroom mirror: narrow, green, equally frantic. There was a pause, during which Sasha felt that she was being confronted; the woman knew, had known all along. Sasha handed her the wallet. She saw, from the woman's stunned expression, that she was wrong.


From the Hardcover edition.
Jennifer Egan|Author Q&A

About Jennifer Egan

Jennifer Egan - A Visit from the Goon Squad

Photo © Pieter M. Van Hattem/Vistalux

Jennifer Egan is the author of The Keep, Look at Me, The Invisible Circus, and the story collection Emerald City. Her stories have been published in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, GQ, Zoetrope, All-Story, and Ploughshares, and her nonfiction appears frequently in The New York Times Magazine. She lives with her husband and sons in Brooklyn.

Jennifer Egan is represented by Random House Speakers Bureau (http://www.rhspeakers.com).

Author Q&A

Q: Ok so tell us, what exactly constitutes a “visit from the goon squad”?
A: I knew the title of this book before I knew almost anything else.  So I, too, entered the project in a state of wondering who the Goon Squad was, exactly.  In addition to Proust, whose In Search of Lost Time I was working my way through as I wrote Goon Squad, my other primary literary (if you will) influence was The Sopranos, whose polyphonic structure I found deeply compelling.  So I guess you might say that there are goons in my book’s genome.  The book is certainly full of people who feel beaten up in one way or another—disappointed, out of luck, gypped of what they once expected and still feel they deserve—but these hardships aren’t the work of particular enemies so much as life’s vicissitudes.  Without giving anything away, I’ll say that the reader’s understanding of who the real goon is accrues over the course of the book in much the way that my own comprehension of life’s extreme brevity has overtaken me as I’ve pushed into my forties.  And that’s all I’m going to say!

Q: In the thirteen chapters in this book we meet a large cast of characters and come to see, chapter by chapter, how all of their lives are connected, and often entangled, in surprising ways.  Where did you get the idea to have their stories unfold in this way?
A: It happened organically, and I was led by little more than my own curiosity.  I started with “Found Objects,” the first chapter in the book, and found myself intrigued by the the brief mention of Bennie Salazar, who sprinkles gold in his coffee and sprays pesticide in his armpits. I thought:  Why would someone do those things?  And from that question came the next piece, “The Gold Cure.”  In that one, there’s a mention of Bennie’s ex-wife, Stephanie, who plays tennis at a country club.  And I thought:  Hmm, what’s Stephanie’s story, and how did her marriage to Bennie end?  So I wrote “A to B.”  Small, lateral observations in a character’s life would catch my eye much as they do in my own:  I’m forever watching people and wondering:  Who is that person?  Where is she going right now?  What does his apartment look like?  What expression does he have when he’s completely alone?  And of course, there’s no way to answer those questions without violating people’s privacy!  But in fiction, I can go anywhere I want.

Things really got interesting when the new pieces I was working on began to extend their tentacles to a few pieces I had already written.  One of those was “Goodbye, My Love,” which I wrote in the late nineties in almost exactly the form it takes in the book.  I was standing in the shower one night (the site of many of my inspirations for Goon Squad, for some reason) when I suddenly realized that Sasha, the thief in “Found Objects,” is the same person, years later, as the runaway in “Goodbye My Love.”  They had the same history—no father—and both protagonists had even stolen a wallet!  And yet it wasn’t until that shower that I saw the connection.  

Q: It seems that Bennie, former punk rocker turned music industry executive and Sasha, his assistant, are the two people around whose lives most of the other people in this book connect.  Yet Bennie and Sasha know very little of each other’s pasts or, as things unfold, futures.   Can you talk a little about how they anchor the book?
A: I think that what interested me about the Bennie-Sasha relationship is that it’s coincidental:  they’re ten years apart in age, with completely diverse pasts and present-day lives, yet they’re thrown together by circumstance (Sasha works for Bennie) and form a strong bond that is, in its way, deeply intimate for a time.  So many relationships are like that—dictated mostly by chance, yet meaningful on their own limited terms—but I don’t feel like I read much about those relationships.  So I began with that intersection of Bennie and Sasha, and followed it as it fanned out into each of their private lives and then their pasts and futures, and then the private lives and pasts and futures of some other people connected to each of them.  It was an instinctive unfolding, with Bennie and Sasha as its starting and endpoint.    

Q: There are so many wonderful people in this book.  Are there any you are particularly fond of or had an especially good (or especially difficult) time writing about?
A: I had a ball writing about many of these folks.  The pieces I enjoyed working on most were probably those that commingle absurdity with logic; “Selling the General,” for example, in which a disgraced publicist is hired to rehabilitate the reputation of a genocidal dictator in an unspecified thirdworld country, or the part of “A to B,” when the ailing rock star unveils his plan for a publicity/suicide tour.  In general my comfort zone is as far away as possible from my own life, so I tend to have more fun writing from a male point of view, for example, than from one more reminiscent of my own, like the teenage female narrator of “Ask Me if I Care.”  The hardest character to write was probably Lou, Bennie’s mentor—a selfish man who wreaks havoc in many people’s lives, including those of his children.  As always with such a character, the challenge is to make sure he’s compelling and complex—not simply alienating—and there’s often some trial and error before I manage to strike that balance.

Q: You have said you are interested in the role of chance and time in people’s lives.  How big a role do you think chance actually plays in most people’s lives?
A: Well, an enormous one—starting with the circumstances we’re born into.  Beyond that, chance probably has the most impact on lives that are relatively privileged: one needs to have some choices, and some physical mobility, to be available to a wide array of chance occurrences.  Presuming that one has the luxury of getting some education, choosing a job, picking a partner, etc.—I think that many lives play out as a counterpoint between random elements of chance and the gravitational pull of what we already know, and have come from.  
 
Q: Music is a huge part of A Visit from the Goon Squad. Why did you decide to make music so significant and do you think it is fair to say that in one way or another it is what connects every character in the book?
A: Yes, I think that’s fair to say.  And given that my obsession in Goon Squad is time and its workings, I guess it’s no surprise that I ended up writing about music (which also plays an enormous part in Proust’s novel), because the interaction between time and music is so complex.  In one sense, music is timeless—it transports us instantly back to periods of our lives that are long gone, and makes us feel like we’re fully back in their midst.  Yet in a cultural sense, music marks the passage of time like almost nothing else; the music of the sixties counterculture or the eighties punk rock scene will never be new again, much as we might still enjoy it—in fact, it’s an indelible reminder that the cultural movements that produced it are ancient history.  And finally, all of my books are in some sense investigations of the evolution of technology and its impact on people’s lives.  This time, the music industry—so ravaged by digitization—became another lens through which to look, even peripherally, at some ramifications of technological change.

Q: You capture the music industry so well, from the early punk rock scene of nineteen-seventies San Francisco, populated by bands like Flipper and The Damned, to a current day boardroom meeting where Bennie actually serves cow patties to his board members as a metaphor for the shit they are forcing him to serve to the public.  How do you know this world so well?

A: The truth is, I only know it well as a consumer.  I’ve always wanted to dig my way into the music industry somehow, and have tried more than once to pursue nonfiction stories in that realm (at one point I was supposed to write for the New York Times Magazine about a pair of identical twin female rappers who became the basis for the Stop/Go sisters in “The Gold Cure”).  I guess that my yen to be a music industry insider in some ways motivated Goon Squad, but any expertise I might seem to possess is purely the product of research; I read a few books and talked at great length, more than once, with an extremely helpful music producer/mixer.  The one part of the industry that I do know, though, is what it feels like to be a teen who hopes music will transform or subsume her.  Although I haven’t been to a rock concert in years, that’s a feeling I’ll never forget, and enjoyed tapping into again.  

Q: There is a chapter in this book called “Great Rock & Roll Pauses” which is an intriguing concept in and of itself but on top of that, it’s written in the form of a PowerPoint presentation!  So, first, what is a great rock and roll pause? And what inspired this chapter in this particular form?
A: I’m not sure that the term “rock & roll pause” is generally used, but I got the idea from a book by Jacob Slichter, the drummer of a band called Semisonic.  Semisonic’s most famous song, “Closing Time,” contains what Slichter calls a “Clearmountain pause,” named after Bob Clearmountain, who produced and mixed the song, and is apparently known for inserting pauses into the music he works on.  I can’t say exactly why the idea of musical pauses caught hold of me, but it did.  On a separate track, I’d also become obsessed with the idea of writing a story in PowerPoint—a program I did not own and had never used.  I remember exactly when that idea came to me: I was reading an article about the Obama campaign’s turnaround two summers ago, and it mentioned that a particular PowerPoint presentation about the campaign’s shortcomings had led to a successful strategy shift. The fact that the presentation in question wasn’t referred to as a “paper,” or a “document” or a “memo,” but as a “PowerPoint,” really struck me.  I thought:  PowerPoint has become a literary genre; I’d love to write a story in it.  This proved to be a long and convoluted process; I’d thought I could somehow do it without actually buying PowerPoint (it’s expensive!), and when I finally did spring for it, I found it incredibly limiting and hard to use.  I attempted a story that failed, and assumed that would be the end of it.  But having bought PowerPoint, I was finally able to open and read other people’s PowerPoint’s, and as with any genre, reading in it was ultimately inspiring.

After I had sold Goon Squad, which I (and my publisher) considered to be complete, I had a brainwave about how to combine rock & roll pauses and PowerPoint into a narrative written by a 12-year old girl in the future, as part of her journal.  I became absolutely consumed with the project of writing that PowerPoint.  It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done—I write fiction in longhand, so just staring at a computer screen for a many hours made my brain ache—but I was finally able to make something happen.

Q: It seems the idea of the pause is very much at work in your book—in the spaces between when people last met or between who they once were (as one of your characters says pre-marriage, pre-parenthood, pre-money, pre-hard drug renunciation, pre-responsibility of any kind) and who they are now.  What intrigues you about the pause?
A: You’re right, the book is all about pauses.  Unconsciously, I think this must be what intrigued me about the idea of pauses in songs when I first encountered it.  Let’s face it—human life is a pause. It’s tiny, and in the larger scheme it hardly registers against the mysterious magnitude of what precedes and follows it.  But it’s all we’ve got, and it’s sweet and bitter and powerful.  This is what Jules ends up saying in “A to B,” when he tells his sister, “Yes, everything is ending.  But not yet.”  In retrospect, I think I wanted to design a book that consciously occupied and explored that very small, yet vividly powerful, “not yet.”

Q: A Visit from the Goon Squad covers a wide geographical sweep. While much of the action takes place in New York City and San Francisco, you also take readers to Africa, to Italy, to a secret compound inhabited by a third world dictator.  How important is setting in your fiction?
A: I don’t want to sound over-dramatic, but for me, setting (with its component parts of mood and atmosphere) is literally everything.  Without it, I can’t begin, and often a setting is all I have when I do.  This was true of virtually every piece in Goon Squad; in “Found Objects,” all I had going in was the feel of that hotel bathroom, with the wallet in plain view.  I didn’t know who was seeing it, or what she would do, or why.  In “Goodbye My Love,” I was moved by the grand decrepitude of Naples, with its decaying palazzi and multitude of street thieves.  Even in “Great Rock and Roll Pauses,” for all my interest in both pauses and PowerPoint, my entry to the story was the feeling of the California desert at night.  In almost every case, I began with a place, or even an atmosphere that precedes place, and out of that came people, and events, and eventually a story.  It’s been this way with all of my fiction, from the very beginning.

Q: Bennie gets a surprise visit from one of his former band mates Scotty Hausmann, once the young star but now a down and out part-time custodial worker for the city. Scotty says to Bennie, “I came for this reason . . . I want to know what happened between A and B.”  Tell us about this idea of A to B as you actually divide the book into two parts titled A and B, what is different about the lives we see in each of those sections?
A: Well, “A” and ”B” mean a lot of things in this book.  First, I conceived of this book not as a novel or a story collection, but as an LP: a narrative that unfolds in segments that contrast a great deal with one another, but contain a range of styles and tell a story over time.  Like any LP, it has an A side and a B side, organized on the same principles of evolution and contrast.  In our era of atomized song-buying, the LP is not just a physical relic, but a conceptual one—which is partly why I wanted to honor and exploit it as a structural model in this book.  But given that the book’s subject, to a large extent, is change over time, “A to B” is also a kind of shorthand for that change.  If Goon Squad is about pauses, then “A to B” is the space inside of which the pauses takes place.

Q: “Pure Language,” the last chapter in the book, takes place in a futuristic Manhattan where babies use handsets; the media world has survived something called the “Bloggescandals”; one character is writing a dissertation on the phenomenon of “word casing,” a term for words that no longer have meaning outside quotation marks; the use of devices for communication leads someone to describe another person as someone who “lived in his pocket.” What inspired this chapter?  Are you nervous about the future of language?
A: I think we all are; it’s impossible to contemplate the speed of technological change, and the magnitude of the economic and cultural and environmental impact of those changes, without getting nervous about where the hell we’re going to find ourselves in twenty years—much less two hundred.  So yes, I’m nervous.  But more immediately (maybe this is why I’m a writer), I’m fascinated, and curious.  I can’t help imagining forward. There may be something apotropaic about these imaginings—a hope that conceiving of a water wall protecting Manhattan from its rivers means that there won’t ever actually be one.  But what I often end up feeling, even as I experience vertigo at the thought of the future—is that human beings are immensely resourceful, and capable of great beauty and genius, and that language and inner life will survive and even thrive because of those qualities, whatever threats they may face.

Q:  I don’t want to give anything away about the ending of A Visit from the Goon Squad but it really seems to suggest that music (and the music industry) throughout the book has in many ways been used as a metaphor for language. Is that so?  Can you talk about this connection between music and language?
A: I think that’s right. The point of connection between music and language is that both are deep and basic forms of human expression.  At the moment, they both feel imperiled, from a business standpoint (will there still be publishing or a music industry in the future?) and, more ominously, from a creative standpoint (will language and literary creation be debased by texting shorthand and the plagiaristic ‘sampling’ mentality of Web culture, as the music industry has been?)  Culturally and humanistically, these are vast, gaping questions.  I think that, finally, “Pure Language”—and in some sense all of A Visit from the Goon Squad—is my attempt to answer them.  


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise | Awards

Praise

“Pitch perfect. . . . Darkly, rippingly funny. . . . Egan possesses a satirist’s eye and a romance novelist’s heart.”
The New York Times Book Review

“At once intellectually stimulating and moving. . . . Like a masterful album, this one demands a replay.”
The San Francisco Chronicle

“A new classic of American fiction.”
Time

“Audacious, extraordinary.”
Philadelphia Inquirer

“A spiky, shape-shifting new book. . . . A display of Egan’s extreme virtuosity.”
The New York Times
 
“Wildly ambitious. . . . A tour de force. . . . Music is both subject and metaphor as Egan explores the mutability of time, destiny, and individual accountability post-technology.”
O, The Oprah Magazine
 
“The smartest book you can get your hands on.”
Los Angeles Times
 
“A rich and unforgettable novel about decay and endurance, about individuals in a world as it changes around them. . . . [Egan] is one of the most talented writers today.”
The New York Review of Books

“It ends in the same place it starts, except that everything has changes, including you, the reader.”
The New Republic

“Clever. Edgy. Groundbreaking. . . . Features characters about whom you come to care deeply as you watch them doing things they shouldn't, acting gloriously, infuriatingly human.”
The Chicago Tribune

“Egan’s bravura fifth book samples from different eras (the glory days of punk; a slick, socially networked future) and styles (sly satire, moving tragedy, even PowerPoint) to explore the interplay between music and the rough rhythms of life.”
Vogue
 
“Told with both affection and intensity, Goon Squad stands as a brilliant, all-absorbing novel for the beach, the woods, the air-conditioned apartment or the city stoop while wearing your iPod. Stay with this one.”
—Alan Cheuse, NPR’s All Things Considered
 
“Brilliant, inventive. . . . Emboldening. It cracks the world open afresh. . . . Would that Marcel Proust could receive [a copy]. It would blow his considerable mind. . . . Expect to inhale Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad. Then expect it to lodge in your cranium and your breastbone a good long while.”
Cleveland Plain Dealer
 
“Frequently dazzling. . . . Egan’s expert flaying of human foibles has the compulsive allure of poking at a sore tooth: excruciating but exhilarating too.”
Entertainment Weekly
 
“If Egan is our reward for living through the self-conscious gimmicks and ironic claptrap of postmodernism, then it was all worthwhile. . . . [A] triumph of technical bravado and tender sympathy. . . . Turn up the music, skip the college reunion and curl up with The Goon Squad instead.”
The Washington Post
 
A Visit From the Goon Squad should cement [Egan’s] reputation as one of America’s best, and least predictable, literary novelists.”
—Taylor Antrim, The Daily Beast
 
“Brilliantly structured. . . . We are pulled right in. . . . [Egan is] a boldly intellectual writer who is not afraid to apply her equally powerful intuitive skills to her ambitious projects.”
Elle
 
“This is art at its best—as a bulwark against the goon, as it embodies everything at once.”
Austin American Statesman
 
“An exhilarating, big-hearted, three-headed beast of a story. . . . We see ourselves in all of Egan’s characters because their stories of heartbreak and redemption seem so real they could be our own, regardless of the soundtrack. Such is the stuff great novels are made of.”
Marie-Claire
 
“For all its postmodern flourishes, Goon Squad is as traditional as a Dickens novel. . . . [Egan’s] aim is not so much to explode traditional storytelling as to explore how it responds to the pressures and opportunities of the digital age.”
Newsweek
 
“Egan has accomplished the tricky feat of using metafiction techniques without sacrificing old-fashioned story-telling. . . . A Visit from the Goon Squad has a circuitous structure that seems almost designed for our Internet rewired brains.”
The Wall Street Journal

Awards

WINNER 2010 National Book Critics Circle Awards
FINALIST 2010 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction
WINNER 2011 Pulitzer Prize
WINNER 2011 L.A. Times Book Prize (Fiction)
FINALIST 2012 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award
WINNER 2011 National Book Critics Circle Awards
WINNER 2011 Los Angeles Times Book Prizes
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

The questions, discussion topics, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group's discussion of Jennifer Egan’s stunning new work, A Visit from the Goon Squad. In a satirical and oddly touching book, Egan brings to life the recent past, captures the confusions and ambiguities of the present, and speculates about the future of America.

A Note from Jennifer Egan
When I talk to audiences about how I came to write A Visit from the Goon Squad in the form it takes, someone invariably says, “I really wish I’d heard what you just said before reading the book; I would have enjoyed it more.” So it seems worth summarizing my remarks for the benefit of book clubs—or individual readers—who haven’t yet read the book, or might have read it and felt confused.
 
I began A Visit from the Goon Squad without a clear plan, following my own curiosity from one character and situation to the next. My guiding rules were only these: 1) Each chapter had to be about a different person. 2) Each chapter had to have a different mood and tone and approach. 3) Each chapter had to stand completely on its own. This last was especially important; since I ask readers to start over repeatedly in A Visit from the Goon Squad, it seemed the least I could do was provide a total experience each time.
 
In other words, you can read this book without making a single connection between any two chapters. They were written—and published—as individual pieces, apart from the book as a whole.
 
I didn’t think of A Visit from the Goon Squad as a novel while I was working on it; nor did I think of it as a collection of short stories. I honestly wasn’t sure what it was. Only when I found myself wanting to call its halves “A” and “B,” did I suddenly realize which genre I’d been working in all along: the concept album. By which I mean the great storytelling albums I grew up with in the 1970s: The Who’s Tommy, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust. A concept album is a story told in parts that sound completely different from each other (that’s the fun of an album, right?), yet also work together.
 
So, as you read A Visit from the Goon Squad, don’t worry about whether you’re “getting it” or whether it’s really a novel, or what connections you might have missed. None of that matters. The point is to have fun reading a tangle of stories in a lot of contrasting styles. If you’ll do that, then you’re exactly the reader I’d hoped for.

About the Guide

Moving from San Francisco in the 1970s to a vividly imagined New York City sometime after 2020, Jennifer Egan portrays the interlacing lives of men and women whose desires and ambitions converge and collide as the passage of time, cultural change, and private experience define and redefine their identities. Bennie Salazar, a punk rocker in his teenage years, is facing middle age as a divorced and disheartened record producer. His cool, competent assistant, Sasha, keeps everything under control—except for her unconquerable compulsion to steal. Their diverse and diverting memories of the past and musings about the present set the stage for a cycle of tales about their friends, families, business associates, and lovers.

A high school friend re-creates the wild, sexually charged music scene of Bennie’s adolescence and introduces the wealthy, amoral entertainment executive Lou Kline, who becomes Bennie’s mentor and eventually faces the consequences of his casual indifference to the needs of his mistresses, wives, and children. Scotty, a guitarist in Bennie’s long-defunct band, emerges from a life lived on the fringes of society to confront Bennie in his luxurious Park Avenue office, while Bennie’s once-punk wife, Stephanie, works her way up in the plush Republican suburb where they live. Other vignettes explore Sasha's experiences and the people who played a role in her life. An uncle searching for Sasha when she runs away at seventeen becomes aware of  his own disillusionments and disappointments as he tries to comfort her. Her college boyfriend describes a night of drug-fueled revelry that comes to a shocking end.  And her twelve-year-old daughter contributes a clever PowerPoint presentation of the family dynamics—including hilariously pointed summaries of her mother’s “Annoying Habit #48” and “Why Dad Isn’t Here.”

From a trenchant look at the vagaries of the music business and the ebb and flow of celebrity to incisive dissections of marriage and family to a provocative vision of where America is headed, A Visit from the Goon Squad is unnerving, exhilarating, and irresistible.

About the Author

Jennifer Egan is the award-winning author of The Keep, the National Book Award–nominated Look at Me, The Invisible Circus, and the story collection Emerald City. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Discussion Guides

1. A Visit from the Goon Squad shifts among various perspectives, voices, and time periods, and in one striking chapter (pp. 234–309), departs from conventional narrative entirely. What does the mixture of voices and narrative forms convey about the nature of experience and the creation of memories? Why has Egan arranged the stories out of chronological sequence?

2. In “A to B” Bosco unintentionally coins the phrase “Time’s a goon” (p. 127), used again by Bennie in “Pure Language” (p. 332). What does Bosco mean? What does Bennie mean? What does the author mean?

3. “Found Objects” and “The Gold Cure” include accounts of Sasha’s and Bennie’s therapy sessions. Sasha picks and chooses what she shares: “She did this for Coz’s protection and her own—they were writing a story of redemption, of fresh beginnings and second chances” (pp. 8–9). Bennie tries to adhere to a list of no-no’s his shrink has supplied (p. 24). What do the tone and the content of these sections suggest about the purpose and value of therapy? Do they provide a helpful perspective on the characters?

4. Lou makes his first appearance in “Ask Me If I Care” (pp. 39–58) as an unprincipled, highly successful businessman; “Safari” (pp. 59–83) provides an intimate, disturbing look at the way he treats his children and lover; and “You (Plural)” (pp. 84–91) presents him as a sick old man. What do his relationships with Rhea and Mindy have in common? To what extent do both women accept (and perhaps encourage) his abhorrent behavior, and why to they do so? Do the conversations between Lou and Rolph, and Rolph’s interactions with his sister and Mindy, prepare you for the tragedy that occurs almost twenty years later? What emotions does Lou’s afternoon in “You (Plural)” with Jocelyn and Rhea provoke? Is he basically the same person he was in the earlier chapters?

5. Why does Scotty decide to get in touch with Bennie? What strategies do each of them employ as they spar with each other? How does the past, including Scotty’s dominant role in the band and his marriage to Alice, the girl both men pursued, affect the balance of power? In what ways is Scotty’s belief that “one key ingredient of so-called experience is the delusional faith that it is unique and special, that those included in it are privileged and those excluded from it are missing out” (p. 98) confirmed at the meeting? Is their reunion in “Pure Language” a continuation of the pattern set when they were teenagers, or does it reflect changes in their fortunes as well as in the world around them?

6. Sasha’s troubled background comes to light in “Good-bye, My Love” (pp. 208–33). Do Ted’s recollections of her childhood explain Sasha’s behavior? To what extent is Sasha’s “catalog of woes” (p. 213) representative of her generation as a whole? How do Ted’s feelings about his career and wife color his reactions to Sasha? What does the flash-forward to “another day more than twenty years after this one” (p. 233) imply about the transitory moments in our lives?

7. Musicians, groupies, and entertainment executives and publicists figure prominently in A Visit from the Goon Squad. What do the careers and private lives of Bennie, Lou, and Scotty (“X’s and O’s”; “Pure Language”); Bosco and Stephanie (“A to B”); and Dolly (“Selling the General”) suggest about American culture and society over the decades? Discuss how specific details and cultural references (e.g., names of real people, bands, and venues) add authenticity to Egan’s fictional creations.

8. The chapters in this book can be read as stand-alone stories. How does this affect the reader’s engagement with individual characters and the events in their lives? Which characters or stories did you find the most compelling? By the end, does everything fall into place to form a satisfying storyline?

9. Read the quotation from Proust that Egan uses as an epigraph (p. ix). How do Proust’s observations apply to A Visit from the Goon Squad? What impact do changing times and different contexts have on how the characters perceive and present themselves? Are the attitudes and actions of some characters more consistent than others', and if so, why?

10. In a recent interview Egan said, “I think anyone who’s writing satirically about the future of America and life often looks prophetic. . . . I think we’re all part of a zeitgeist and we’re all listening to and absorbing the same things, consciously or unconsciously. . . .” (Brooklyn Daily Eagle, February 8, 2010). Considering current social trends and political realities, including fears of war and environmental devastation, evaluate the future Egan envisions in “Pure Language” and “Great Rock and Roll Pauses.”

11. What does “Pure Language” have to say about authenticity in a technological and digital age? Would you view the response to Bennie, Alex, and Lulu’s marketing venture differently if the musician had been someone other than Scotty Hausmann and his slide guitar? Stop/Go (from “The Gold Cure”), for example?


(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit: www.readinggroupcenter.com.)

Suggested Readings

A. S. Byatt, The Children’s Book; Don DeLillo, White Noise; Jon McGregor, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things; Rick Moody, Right Livelihoods; Alice Munro, Open Secrets
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Watch Jennifer Egan's PowerPoint presentation created for A Visit from the Goon Squad.

  • A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
  • March 22, 2011
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Anchor
  • $15.95
  • 9780307477477

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