Bennie Salazar is having a bad day. Executives at Sow's Ear Records in New York City's TriBeCa want to dump a band he discovered, he's lost his mojo and, after consulting a book on Aztec medicine, now mixes flecks of gold with his coffee to resuscitate his sex drive. While listening to the band to see if their sound is still gritty, Bennie is flooded with shame memories. These are no simple recollections, rather a visceral "raking over … and leaving gashes," a reliving of each moment when the image of his best self was shattered and soiled, colliding with the underbelly of reality.
In her brash beauty of a novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan understands the power of shame, simply because it makes one present in the moment as effectively as fear or desire. One of the novel's themes is the loss of that vitality in our world, which is beset by sterilization and digitization, "which sucked the life out of everything that got smeared through its microscopic mesh." It is not only music that is at risk, but also art, film, photography, literature and, most important, the self.
Bennie decides to list his catalogue of shame on a parking ticket, hoping this will puncture its power. His humiliations are embarrassing, albeit very human. His barber discovers lice on his son's scalp. A girl Bennie lusts after walks in on him while he is on the toilet. He kisses a Mother Superior on the mouth after signing the nuns for a record deal.
Bennie's assistant, Sasha, a fetching, russet-haired kleptomaniac, asks him, "Why do you keep scribbling on that ticket?" She reads the list aloud: "Kissing Mother Superior, incompetent, hairball, poppy seeds, on the can."
Bennie is in agony, then Sasha says, "Not bad. They're titles, right?" It's a great moment: real, cleansing.
Bennie and Sasha are the novel's most compelling characters, and Egan turns them inside out. In contrast to her contemporary, Mary Gaitskill, who probes her protagonists with scalpel and magnifying glass, Egan does so with tenderness and humour.
We also follow the interlocking fates of a dizzying number of people who circle the lives of Benny and Sasha. There is Benny's high-school crowd, who form a rock band, The Flaming Dildoes, in the late 1970s during San Francisco's punk scene, as well as a seductive, devouring music executive who becomes Bennie's mentor. The secret lives of Sasha's parents, her uncle, and a suicidal college friend, are also laid bare. Vertigo and exhilaration result: Remember Spin Art?
Egan is a fearless writer, game for risk. In A Visit from the Goon Squad, she employs a kaleidoscopic spin of styles, switches up points of view and emotional tones, even creating a dazzling 75-page interlude in PowerPoint. Time is a Möbius strip, not a line.
Interestingly, in this boundary-bending book, Egan chooses two epigraphs from Proust's In Search of Lost Time. Despite her innovations, Egan's themes are classic: our human longing to master time, to escape its inexorable passage through fame, immortality, or redemption. "Time's a goon," observes one character, who has become more of a relic than a rock star. Yet, time not only wounds heels, it heals some wounds.
Egan's handling of time can be jarring or brilliant. An irritating habit of lurching out of a scene to project what happens to a character is distracting and defuses power. Spending too much time on peripheral characters also diminishes this otherwise exceptional book. Yet, the risk of including the lengthy visual "slide journal" of Sasha's 12-year-old daughter (the interlude in PowerPoint) is unnervingly moving. The graphic element not only depicts time's passage, it also embodies it; this is new media redeemed and redemptive. The novel's climax, which zooms into the future to 2021, is a stunner.
What is wonderful and bracing about Egan is that she cares about freedom, risk and venturing into new territory more than about producing the perfect, pretty package. Many well-crafted novels are dead; many wonderful novels have ragged edges. Remember, novel means new. Though contemporary life can be numbing, Egan's edgy novel is flexible and alive, the perfect antidote.
Ami Sands Brodoff writes to the backbeat of her teen's basement band practice. She is nostalgic for vinyl and The Who, and is at work on a new novel, Faraway Nearby. Her latest book is, The White Space Between, winner of the Canadian Jewish Book Award for Fiction.