Time is not on our side, sneaking up on us and grinding away our souls and bodies. “Time’s a goon” says one of the characters in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, one of the best reads I’ve had in a long time. Encompassing past, present and future, a whole lot of nostalgia and innumerable character points of view, the novel is a self-declared proustian endeavor for the 21st century. Since I’ve never really managed to warm up to Mr. Proust, I’ll have to take Egan’s word for it, but it did give me renewed bouts of shame for not having read the frenchie classic and maybe even the push to do so during up-coming long cold winter nights.
Aside from the nostalgia and the all encompassing theme of the past’s shadows over the present, there is little else of the self-absorbed proustian streak. It’s a novel about no one in particular, but about many characters whose paths cross more or less delicately: a kleptomaniac redhead, a punk-rock producer, a bunch of punk teenagers, children, spouses and lovers of other characters, friends, a late blooming, recluse guitar-player, a middle-aged art professor, a suicidal unrequited lover, a PR specialist with a ruined reputation and so on. The time frame is scrambled and ranging from sometime in the late 70s to 2020. This all sounds pretentious and complicated, but it somehow falls effortlessly into place. Despite the obviously experimental prose, it has a surprisingly classical old-fashioned tinge to it. It may be because of the whole nostalgia permeating it. It’s like Proust for the digital age. I’m getting the feeling that the sex drugs and rock’n’roll self-destructive thing is becoming vintage material for this squeaky clean, technologically savvy and paradoxically eco conscious, slow food cooking, domestic new generation and the novel definitely carries some sort of heroin nostalgia.
Some may find it tiring that each chapter starts from an entirely new perspective that one needs to get accustomed with, but the effort pays off in the end as you start to see the fine lines tying all of them together. They are all almost poetic and despite their shortness, you get a deep insight into each character and an uncanny sense of how the passage of time is altering them. My favorite chapter belongs to a former teen-age guitar-prodigy, now toothless recovering heroin addict turned bum, who spends his time fishing in New York and one day brings a big catch to his now big shot producer former childhood friend, leaving a big stinky fish wrapped up in newspaper on his fancy desk in an equally fancy skyscraper office building. It plays beautifully with the ambiguities of success and how sometimes reaching rock bottom is not very different from achieving what society would refer to as success. And how success is always tinted by the fear that you are nonetheless always one step away from hitting rock bottom. There is also a touching chapter written in power-point slides, not my favorite, but definitely an achievement keeping up with the connection between the passage of time and ever changing media theme, in an eloquent way. It got me looking back at my own life and what the passage of time has done to it and I found myself already missing the characters while I was done with the last pages.