I don’t keep up with mainstream literary fiction as much as I used to. But I do try to read one or two a year that has risen to the top of the zeitgeist wave. A Visit From the Goon Squad was absorbed through some form of cultural osmosis (perhaps an NPR Fresh Air interview with Egan; or rumors of an HBO spinoff series?)
Going in completely blind, I thought the book would be about totalitarian dictators, a heartfelt account of loss in some third world hell. Instead, the whole thing was a light, jaunty black comedy about aging and the rock music industry.
The book is composed of 13 loosely connected short stories, focusing on a cast of characters orbiting Bennie Salazar, a rock executive. The stories skip around in time and space: some are set in Africa in the 70s, California in the early 80s, New York in the modern day, even Arizona in the 2020s. We even get a short vignette of PR professional’s trip to remake the image of a dictator: dressing Gaddafi in Gucci, so to speak.
The big gimmick of the book is a chapter (written by the precocious daughter of Sasha, Bennie’s kleptomaniac assistant) composed in the form of a Power Point presentation. Instead of describing the nuanced relationships of her mother, father and brother, she illustrates them with big swooping arrows and Venn Diagrams.
The theme of the presentation is “Pauses in Rock Music”. A few theories are presented. Pauses emphasize whatever rock musicianship that is to follow; pauses give the song a sort of jolting rhythm; pauses lengthen the song as a whole; pauses are the sign of a song writer void of ideas.
A standard literary critical analysis “trope” is to map this theme onto the scope of the book. All the big plot points of Bennie and friend’s lives happen offscreen. The stories you read are essentially the pauses in between the big breaks, the platinum albums, the affairs, the divorces. Egan does this thing where we get a brief glimpse of a character (in their youth or whatever) and then jump ahead 50 years in the future, summing up the big events in their life in the span of a paragraph. This feels incredibly annoying, as though Egan is flaunting her omniscient narrator’s power with all the dexterity of a vengeful teenage god.
But it fits into the thesis that the book is deliberately breaking down the tropes of plot, and narrative character arcs. “Novel” stuff. These are the kind of gimmicks that literary critics love and latch onto (thus the Pulitzer).
But from a pure novelistic standpoint, the book feels half baked, airy, unfinished. In the scope of the short stories, we meet mildly interesting characters. But those narrators never experience any change, any big epiphanies. They’re simply disembodied voices. The thoughts that drift through their heads are usually along the lines of “how did I get so old?” or “where did my life go wrong?” Pretty clichéd stuff.
The moral vantage that Egan takes is pretty nihilistic: authenticity will die and get consumed by richer interests. People will get old and ugly. The vibrant luster of youth is a lie. Blah blah blah. And for a book about rock music, it’s strangely devoid of any energy alluding to rock and roll.
It is true that mainstream rock is pretty much dead. Even cool indie bands have their catchy songs jingle-fied to sell cars and tacos.
In the end, one of Egan’s characters says it best: “The answers were maddeningly absent – it was like trying to remember a song that you knew made you feel a certain way, without a title, artist, or even a few bars to bring it back.” That’s how the entire book feels – middlebrow rock-pop songs, half remembered, but mostly forgotten, fading into the background noise.