Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Rating: 3 & ½ Stars

2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

            For better or worse, certain things have come to define America – its foreign policy, Coca Cola, McDonald’s, Hollywood Movies, and of course, Music. Few things are more quintessentially American than Elvis, Rock and Roll, Jazz, Blues, Rap…the list goes on.

            Most of the main characters in Jennifer Egan’s captivating novel have connections to the music industry. The other thing they have in common is connection to one another. The world depicted in ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’ is a small one, despite occasionally zigzagging across different continents, and careening boldly over diverse time-periods of the protagonists’ lives. Chance encounters and random characters traipse through the story, creating ripple effects where one person is separated from another only by a few degrees of difference.

            The two main connecting links are introduced early in the novel. There’s a friable quality to the troubled Sasha who leaves an indelible imprint at the first meeting. She has worked for twelve years for Bennie Salazar, ex punk-rocker and more recently, record executive for ‘Sow’s Ear Records’. Unlike the intriguing Sasha, Bennie makes a far less favorable impression. He is wallowing in a warm bath of shameful memories and private humiliations, and the unsuspecting reader is deluged by wave after wave of squirm-inducing recollections. Sasha and Bennie, each in their own way, are seeking deliverance, mostly from themselves. On them, as on everyone else in this novel, Time works its mysterious, ineluctable alchemy.

            Egan’s nimble, innovative story-telling effortlessly spears our attention from the get-go. Her vivid vignettes anchor the ensemble of characters, so that each feels like a crucial piece of a jigsaw puzzle, rather than a mere cameo appearance. As their individual lives converge, diverge, and overlap onto each other’s, together, they form a richly colorful montage of different experiences and perspectives.

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