Book Review: A Visit From The Goon Squad
“Time’s a goon.” – Bosco
In all of my life as a devourer of pop culture, particularly films and books, I have developed an opinion that there are two types of time-travel fiction. One is the kind where your protagonist travels through time using a scientific device a la Marty McFly in Back to the Future while the other kind is where our protagonist does not use science but instead travels through time using memory or through special narrative techniques like flashbacks or foreshadowing.
A Visit from the Goon Squad uses the second type in which Time is not only a main character in the book but also, in my humble opinion, the villain. For what other reason do we call Time a goon in this book if not for the fact that Time has beaten all the characters within Jennifer Egan’s novel senseless.
However, by calling it a novel, I already have a problem because A Visit from the Goon Squad is not a novel if we are to use a traditional definition. A novel is supposed to have a singular narrative with a beginning, an end, and everything in between that connects the exposition to the denouement. But A Visit from the Goon Squad is more of a collection of stories with characters whose lives are interconnected and their non-linear stories offer a glimpse of what Time does to people as if to validate the belief that Time does not heal things because Time makes it worse.
To summarize this book would be a futile attempt on my part. There is no story that can be shortened into the form of “first this, then this, and finally that.” The book is divided into different stories each with a different character as a focal point of the said story. No two stories share the same protagonist and the two things that they share in common are that they are connected in a way, however small and trivial, and that Time is their enemy.
As I said above, the stories are non-linear in the most difficult way possible. A story is the present, a flashback, and a foreshadowing all rolled into one. In the book, there is no sense of a present, a past, or a future because it is all happening simultaneously and reading a story can give you feeling of knowing already what will happen or what happened in the past because you have already read it from a different story a few pages ago. The book gives you several perspectives of different events that has or that will happen. Sometimes it only mentions these events in passing while some will mention it in detail.
Music plays a big part in the book as we have characters that are musicians, managers, and agents. Music plays a big part in the lives of our characters, one even proposed to do a concert tour where the climax will be his death. There is also a story, one of the most inventive stories that I’ve ever read, titled Great Rock and Roll Pauses which connects the domestic life of the story’s protagonist with the pauses found in rock and roll music. In the end, the story (and the book as a whole) imparts one knowledge about life being like a rock and roll song. It has a pause that you think is the end, in which you will take time to think about the whole point of life, then it will just resume and you now have to prepare for the real end.
I have found many reviews that dismisses this book as a way for the writer to impress readers and I have to disagree with that statement. The format may seem gimmicky and may seem as a way for the writer to reap awards but I believe that such a story cannot be told in any other way. How else can you tell a story about the perniciousness of Time? About how Time beats us senseless without warning and then gives us a moment to contemplate the past and the future and then beats us up again.
A reader who dislikes nonlinear narrative may not pick up this book but it is always worth a try. No reader can shackle Time here and force it to follow its natural order. The Time that Jennifer Egan has presented us is one that is capricious and jumps from one narrative into another. The reader can feel the beating that Time imparts on its characters and, in the end, the reader will be beaten by the goon that is Time and the goon will give you a pause so that the reader can prepare himself for their next meeting.