Born in Chicago, Jennifer Egan spent her formative years in San Francisco. She majored in English literature at the University of Pennsylvania. Then, she accepted a fellowship at St. John’s College, Cambridge. Egan has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction, and a Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Fellowship at the New York Public Library. Her first novel, The Invisible Circus, became a feature film starring Cameron Diaz. Her latest book, A Visit from the Goon Squad, won the 2011 National Book Critics Award for Fiction, a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and the LA Times Book Prize for Fiction. Egan’s non-fiction has graced the pages of New York Times Magazine winning the Carroll Kowal Journalism Award and a 2009 NAMI Outstanding Media Award for Science and Health Reporting from the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Currently, she lives in Brooklyn.
The Day the Music Died
1959 might soon become 1996. When Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. Richardson died in a plane crash on February 3, 1959, singer-songwriter Don McLean pronounced that date as “the day the music died” in his popular tune, “American Pie.”
However, the day the Telecommunications Act of 1996 became law might soon become the real day the music died. The law – which deregulated media ownership – allowed Clear Channel Communications to buy the lion’s share of the nation’s radio stations.
Showcased in the scathing documentary, Before the Music Dies, Clear Channel is arguably responsible for the decline of music in the last decade. Substituting quality for quantity, Clear Channel’s business model preached non-offensiveness. Instead of spinning the best tunes from the best artists, radio focused on keeping listeners tuned in long enough to get to commercials.
For this reason, commercial appeal replaced artistry. The music needed to have enough hooks to keep the listener from switching channels. Under this business model, legendary bands like Led Zepplin and Pink Floyd would have never grown in status since their work needed time to mature in the listener’s ears.
At the core, Jennifer Egan’s book, A Visit from the Goon Squad, touches on the death of the music industry and the disillusionment of the book’s characters as they encounter uncertain futures.
A Visit from the Goon Squad is a series of connected short stories. Set mostly in New York but also California, Africa, and Italy, the book centers around music executive, Bennie Salazar. Jumping between the current time period, the late sixties, and the near future, each chapter tells the story of a character connected in some way to Bennie.
Written in a style similar to Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists, each chapter is devoted to another character in Egan’s imagined world. As the story progresses, characters develop in the periphery. While Rachman’s short stories and multiple characters orbited the newspaper where they work, Egan’s characters do not carry a central point of reference. Although Bennie Salazar seems to be the central character, not every protagonist from chapter to chapter knows him personally.
Questions of Art, Purpose, and Brokeness
Stylistically, A Visit from the Goon Squad inquires about the legitimacy of artistry. Does punk rock remain punk rock when it is commercialized? If art exists for the sake of money, does it cease to become art? Egan writes,
“When does a fake Mohawk become a real Mohawk? Who decides? How do you know if it’s happened?” (35).
Additionally, Egan suggests that the distance between success and failure or life and death is imperceptibly minute. Writing about Bennie’s long-lost and arguably more talented former band member, Egan pens,
“Things had gotten sort of dry for me. I was working for the city as a janitor in a neighborhood elementary school and, in summers, collecting litter in the park alongside the East River near the Williamsburg Bridge. I felt no shame whatsoever in these activities, because I understood what almost no one else seemed to grasp: that there was only an infinitesimal difference, a difference so small that it barely existed except as a figment of the human imagination, between working in a tall green glass building on Park Avenue and collecting litter in a park. In fact, there may have been no difference at all” (71).
Moreover, Egan explores the brokenness of her characters. Those characters successful in business struggle mightily in their personal lives; the characters with stable personal lives struggle with finances. Throughout the story, the characters labor toward keeping their heads above water. Referencing a failed publicist, Egan elaborates on her attempts to make ends meet no matter the ethical consequences:
“When the first installment appeared in her bank account, Dolly’s relief was so immense that it almost obliterated the tiny anxious muttering voice inside her: Your client is a genocidal dictator. Dolly had worked with shitheads before, God knew; if she didn’t take this job someone else would snap it up; being a publicist is about not judging your clients – these excuses were lined up in formation, ready for deployment should that small dissident voice pluck up its courage to speak with any volume. But lately, Dolly couldn’t even hear it” (105).
PowerPoint: A Plot Device
Of course, any book review of A Visit from the Goon Squad must mention the famous PowerPoint chapter. I have heard some label this move as pure genius. Others perceive its use in questionable terms. Personally, I found it moving, unique, and a quick way to read 80 pages. Since enough ink has been spilled on this chapter, I shall only state that it is a unique and enjoyable plot device.
Where Characters Meet
While A Visit from the Goon Squad is an enjoyable read, I found Egan’s connections between characters to be slightly forced. Where a collection of stories that locates itself within a static community provides reasonable relational connections, Egan’s characters live, work, and play in separate spheres. Although some connections made sense, it felt like Egan – at certain times – inserted characters inorganically.
Nevertheless, A Visit from the Goon Squad carries dense themes and certainly requires a reread. As the music industry crumbles around us, Egan masterfully depicts characters simultaneously breaking down. Before the music dies, I recommend reading this book.