Jennifer Egan's A Visit From The Goon Squad (Knopf; 274 pages) is a singular work of fiction in both senses of the word. It's as if the author has taken an epic novel covering five decades and expertly filleted it, casting aside excess characters and years to come away with a narrative that is wide-ranging but remarkably focused. The remains, a set of short stories artfully assembled in nonchronological order, create a vibrant and winning novel-like experience.
What connects Goon Squad's 13 linked chapters are the lives and loves of Bennie, a successful music producer, and his highly capable assistant Sasha. The book starts with a chapter told from Sasha's point of view, then one from Bennie's; after that, Egan lets us glimpse them through the stories of family, friends and peripheral past acquaintances. The time frames range from 1979, with a nostalgic look at the punk scene in San Francisco, to an unsettling but entirely imaginable future set in Manhattan and the California desert. Each chapter could stand alone as a short story--even the zaniest, which is delivered entirely in the form of a PowerPoint presentation.
Egan clearly delights in playing with form. In her last book, The Keep, she seduced readers into a story told in the third person, then pulled back a curtain to reveal a hidden narrator who not only complained about his writing process but kept interrupting the original narrative with his own adventures. In Goon Squad, she experiments with themes of technology and connectivity, as she did in The Keep, but her real game is with time. Sasha, when we first meet her, is 35, living in Manhattan and suffering from a bout of kleptomania. The pilfering has caused Bennie to fire her, after 12 years during which Sasha functioned, as he later puts it, "like the other half of my brain." ("Three-quarters really," he adds.) But the next chapter, Bennie's, takes us back to the days when Sasha was still in his employ. The firing happens off camera, and we learn nothing more about it until the final chapter. Many elements of the story, including a few happy endings and some very sad ones, are meted out this way; it is as if Egan is slowly filling in the overlapping forms of a Venn diagram, showing you where and how these people and time frames intersect.
In the PowerPoint chapter--which actually transcends the gimmick--we find Sasha living in a future in which solar panels have replaced lawns, with an autistic son named Lincoln who is obsessed with the pauses he finds in music, like the two-second break in the Police's "Roxanne." Lincoln's desire to catalog these unexpected musical silences is baffling to his father, and at a crucial point, Sasha tersely explains it to her husband: "The pause makes you think the song will end. And then the song isn't really over, so you're relieved. But then the song does actually end, because every song ends, obviously, and THAT. TIME. THE. END. IS. FOR. REAL."
Egan's narrative fits and starts are her versions of pauses, delaying and preparing us for the end. Bennie and Bosco, the rock star who made Bennie's career, remark at two different points that "Time is a goon, right?" From the title, you'd think, yes--time is a goon, a violent thug that pays periodic visits to remind us we're all slowly dying. But that lilting, questioning "right?" is crucial. While this is occasionally a wistful book, it isn't sad. Each narrative disorientation and subsequent reorientation reminds us of how we weave in and out of one another's lives, staying connected through memory--our shield against the goon squad. By the time we get to the last page of Egan's book--the end that is for real--we're left wanting more.