M. Keith Booker, University of Arkansas

Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad is a highly self-conscious playful literary romp that nevertheless takes on some serious issues. Of these, the one that is most central to the text is the issue of time and the ways in which time ultimately takes us all down. In popular usage, a “goon squad” is a group of hired thugs engaged to threaten and intimidate one’s enemies (most typically in an organized labor situation in which company’s hired thugs to attach union organizers to prevent them from doing their work). Egan has said that the great gangster series The Sopranos (1999–2007) was one of the inspirations for the novel, though, so it seems reasonable in this context to think of a goon squad in terms of henchmen hired to intimidate the enemies of organized crime figures. In any case, the usage in the novel is entirely metaphorical: the “goon squad” referred to in the novel’s title is time itself, which, like a gang of hired thugs, tends to enforce its will on us all.

Time’s a Goon: Time and Narrative in A Visit from the Goon Squad

As David Cowart points out, Jennifer Egan was born the year before Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 was published. She is thus essentially a generation younger than the first wave of American postmodern novelists. However, Cowart concludes that A Visit from the Goon Squad still employs the same sort of textual strategies that we have come to associate with postmodernism. Thus, for Cowart, rather than repudiate the approach of her postmodern predecessors, Egan “takes her place in their ranks and augments their exhilarating formal and ideational deconstructions of such vestigial metanarratives (of language, of history, of the unconscious) as continued to shelter in the shadow of that great rock, modernism” (243). However, Cowart suggests that Egan does approach the modernists differently than do Pynchon and other earlier postmodernists, viewing them not as immediate forebears to be challenged but as more distant forebears, as “ancestral figures—as much to be venerated as rebelled against” (243).

Cowart identifies Proust (as has Egan herself) and T. S. Eliot as important modernist predecessors to Goon Squad, especially in their treatment of the theme of time, which is so crucial to her text. And it is certainly the case that new ways of thinking about and representing time were crucial to the work of many modernists, including these two. But Cowart also grants that Goon Squad differs sharply from works such as Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past or Eliot’s The Waste Land, “miniaturing” the vast magnitude of the former and parodying key strategies of the latter, revamping “the fragmentation, the density of allusion, the exploitation of myth” that are crucial to the latter for her twenty-first century audience (245).

It is certainly the case that Goon Squad is one of the most formally interesting literary texts of the twenty-first century, featuring narrative intricacies that rival those of great modernist novels such as Remembrance of Things Past or even Ulysses. However, it is definitely smaller in scale and more modest in intent than such lofty predecessors. Whereas the greatest modernist novels tend to be monumental in scope and ambition, Goon Squad (as its playful title indicates) is more of a literary puzzle or game. Unraveling its complex narrative structure offers the same pleasures as piecing together a jigsaw puzzle, but (unlike the best modernist novels) it does not offer the reader the possibility of discovering profound truths about the human condition by solving its narrative.

The individual chapters of A Visit from the Goon Squad are narrated from a number of different perspectives and in a number of styles and genres, including one chapter (Chapter 9, “Forty Minute Lunch: Kitty Jackson Opens Up About Love, Fame and Nixon! Jules Jones Reports”) that is essentially presented as a magazine article and another (Chapter 12, “Great Rock and Roll Pauses”) that consists entirely of a PowerPoint presentation. Goon Squad also employs a liberal mix of third-person and first-person narration—and even includes one chapter (Chapter 10, “Out of Body”) that is narrated in the unusual second-person. In this way, the novel not only explores a number of traditional modes of literary narration but also the newer ways in which information is widely conveyed in the society of today. In this sense, Goon Squad resembles something like James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), in which each of the eighteen chapters explores a different way of telling a story. Egan’s novel also resembles Ulysses in that the individual chapters are interrelated in very intricate ways, with bits of information that seem insignificant when delivered in one chapter sometimes turning out to be highly important in the context of other chapters. Of course, the basic plot of Ulysses is relatively simple and relatively linear, even though there are lots of digressions from the main story line. In Goon Squad, the narrative is much more convoluted and complex. Not only are the different chapters not related in alphabetical order, but each chapter is essentially a standalone story that is connected to other chapters by the presence of overlapping characters but is relatively independent in a narrative sense, leaving it to readers to piece the stories together.

Indeed, the individual stories of Goon Squad are so loosely linked that there has been much discussion about whether the books should be regarded as a novel at all, or whether it should simply be regarded as a collection of short stories. The work of Joyce again comes to mind, in the sense that his story collection Dubliners (1914) has sometimes been regarded as a novel because of the close thematic interrelationships among the stories, even if there is little direct narrative interconnection. Again, though, the Dubliners stories are presented in roughly chronological order, while the much more radically disordered chapters of Goon Squad reflect a much more postmodern and fragmented sense of time.

The fragmented narrative structure of Goon Squad can be taken as a reflection of this postmodern sense of time. Indeed, this temporal fragmentation is one of the clearest ways in which Egan’s book can be taken as a representative work of postmodernism. Not only are the individual chapters of the book not arranged in chronological order, but the order within chapters is sometimes disrupted as well, especially in the PowerPoint chapter, where the temporal flow within individual slides is sometimes quite difficult to unpack. In addition, there are other textual features that disrupt the normal flow of the narrative, as in the inclusion of paratextual features such as footnotes that supplement the narrative with extra information but that cannot be accessed without disrupting the normal temporal flow of the reading process[1].

As Fredric Jameson, the leading theorist of postmodernism, has pointed out, the experience of living in the postmodern world creates a fragmented sense of time that leads to the psychic fragmentation of the individual subject. Drawing upon the work of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, Jameson argues that, amid the increasing complexity and fragmentation of experience in the postmodern world, the individual subject experiences a loss of temporal continuity that causes him or her to experience the world somewhat in the manner of a schizophrenic. The schizophrenic, Jameson says,

“is condemned to live in a perpetual present with which the various moments of his or her past have little connection and for which there is no conceivable future on the horizon. In other words, schizophrenic experience is an experience of isolated, disconnected, discontinuous material signifiers which fail to link into a coherent sequence. The schizophrenic does not know personal identity in our sense, since our feeling of identity depends on our sense of the persistence of the ‘I’ and the ‘me’ over time” (137).

Not surprisingly, Jameson suggests that this schizophrenic fragmentation in personal identity strongly influences postmodern narratives, in which the characters often experience fragmented, plural, and discontinuous identities. This schizophrenia also, for Jameson, can be seen in the formal fragmentation of the narratives themselves, leading to the production of postmodern “schizophrenic” texts by authors such as Samuel Beckett.

One could clearly include Goon Squad, with its radically fragmented narrative structure, in this category of “schizophrenic” postmodern texts. The same might also be said for the identities of its characters, who tend to go through various phases in their lives in the course of the text, phases in which they sometimes seem like radically different people in ways that go well beyond the simple changes that all of us can expect to go through in the course of our lives. However, where Goon Squad differs from some of the more radical texts of postmodernism is that its puzzle-like narrative can, to some extent, be put back together with sufficient effort. Granted, some details of the puzzle might be missing, but there doesn’t seem to be any contradictory information (such as two different events, each of which seems to occur before the other) that makes it impossible to reconstruct a reasonably consistent timeline. In addition, the novel thematically reminds us that time itself marches on in a relatively linear and continuous way, quite apart from the actions or fragmented perceptions of its characters. It is, indeed, largely in this sense that the “goon squad” of time ultimately triumphs over everyone.

The ultimate availability of a consistent timeline is one of the reasons why I think Goon Squad should, in fact, be regarded as a novel rather than as a collection of short stories. In this regard I would also cite the work of Mikhail Bakhtin, whose theorization of the novel is still the best we have. For Bakhtin, the novel is a special genre because it has no fixed characteristics but can take on a variety of characteristics in different situations. Among other things, this flexibility allows the novel to import different points of view, allowing them to engage in a polyphonic dialogue with one another without any need to identity one of point of view as the authoritative one. The novel’s flexibility also allows it function as a sort of metagenre that can import material from other genres (such as poetry, drama, or journalism) while still remaining a novel. Finally, the lack of fixed characteristics allows the novel to change over time in response to events in the material world around it.

Goon Squad essentially does everything that Bakhtin identifies as a special ability of the novel as a genre. By focusing on different characters in different chapters—and by using different narrative voices and narrative persons—Egan’s novel achieves a high level of the kind of polyphony that Bakhtin so values. Its heavy use of material from music illustrates the ability of the novel to incorporate other cultural forms, while the magazine article chapter and (especially) the PowerPoint chapter are particularly overt demonstrations of this ability. Finally, the novel is very extensively embedded in its historical context, which ranges over the forty-year period prior to the publication of the novel, thus demonstrating the kind of close contact with contemporary reality that Bakhtin associates with the novel as a genre.

Goon Squad was published relatively early in the social media era and does not fully anticipate the extent to which social media would impact American public life. It does, however, reflect the growing impact of the internet and digital media on American life even as early as its 2010 publication. This aspect of the novel is manifested most clearly in the much-discussed twelfth chapter, which is narrated entirely as a PowerPoint presentation.  Surprisingly effective as a window onto the lives of the Blake family, this chapter can be taken as a demonstration of the ways in which new media can be adapted to storytelling—something we had already learned once before in Western history when the once oral form of storytelling was, in the eighteenth century, adapted to print. But what Goon Squad especially illustrates is the remarkable ability of the genre of the novel to adapt to changes in the world around it and to incorporate new media without losing its identifiable character as a novel.

Of course, it is also relevant that chapter twelve is not a very good PowerPoint presentation, at least in its hard copy print form[2]. The slides are excessively wordy and far too busy for a truly effective PowerPoint presentation. They are also quite confusing and hard to follow in terms of temporal movement within the individual slides. That, of course, might be partly because they were prepared by a twelve-year-old girl, but it is probably more because this chapter is not really a PowerPoint presentation: it is a fictional narrative using the format of the PowerPoint, thereby acknowledging the existence of such things as a growing part of the texture of everyday life by 2010, when PowerPoint had already been in existence for more than twenty years. Thus, the novel has not literally incorporated a PowerPoint presentation, but has appropriated the format of such presentations for its own use, establishing the firm precedence of the novel form over the PowerPoint form for this purpose.

In this regard, it might also be noted that, two years after its publication, Goon Squad was supplemented by the publication of “Black Box,” a truly digital short story that appeared as a series of tweets, which were then gathered and printed together as a story in New Yorker magazine. In this sense, Goon Squad pushes the limits of the novel even farther by going outside the bounds of the original volume, both in the digital form of chapter twelve and via this digital short story, which features Lulu, a prominent character in the printed novel’s final chapter, as a prominent chapter in “Black Box.”

Ultimately, all of this textual chicanery around the PowerPoint chapter, more than anything, simply acknowledges the growing importance of digital media in our lives in the twenty-first century. This fact is also directly represented in the text in the form of the “handsets” that form the principal piece of science fictional hardware. Given that these handsets don’t seem much more advanced than the smartphones that were already common in 2010, their presence in Goon Squad does not represent all that much of a technological extrapolation. Indeed, they are used primarily for satirical purposes, as Egan lampoons the penetration of such devices into our day-to-day lives through her vision of the “Starfish,” or “kiddie handsets” that are, in the 2020s of the book’s final chapter, already in wide use among toddlers and even infants, who can use them (by simply pointing at items on the screen) to exert significant influence on the music industry through the ordering of digital downloads. In one case, we are told, a three-month-old infant ordered a download of a Nine Inch Nails song entitled “Ga-ga,” the title of which would have obvious appeal to an infant, even if Nine Inch Nails would not typically be thought of as a kiddie band. There is also a booming market in infantilized remixes of a variety of previous hits, also often by surprising artists:

“Bands had no choice but to reinvent themselves for the preverbal; even Biggie had released yet another posthumous album whose title song was a remix of a Biggie standard, “Fuck You, Bitch,” to sound like “You’re Big, Chief!” with an accompanying picture of Biggie dandling a toddler in Native American headdress” (317).

This motif clearly satirizes both the growing use of digital devices by increasingly young children and the disproportionate influence of young audiences on the music industry and on popular culture in general. It is also part of a dialogue with the music industry that runs through Goon Squad providing a focus for the book’s engagement with American culture in general.

The youth-oriented nature of American popular culture is evoked in A Visit from the Goon Squad in a number of ways, the most obvious of which is its portrayal of Bosco and Scotty, aging guitarists who both feel that time has passed them by. Indeed, these two characters actually employ the central metaphor of time as a “goon squad.” Bosco, a former star who is contemplated an attempted comeback that he himself feels is doomed to fail, describes his current fallen condition by telling the pop journalist Jules Jones that “time’s a goon” (131). Later, aging record producer Bennie Salazar employs the metaphor (perhaps he got it from Bosco or perhaps it was the other way around) in attempting to convince Scotty to try to go on stage for a concert designed to restart a musical career that never got off the ground. “‘Time’s a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?’” Scotty shook his head. ‘The goon won.’”

Aging rockers are, of course, perfect images of the way in which the march of time tends to pass us by, but A Visit from the Goon Squad engages in a critical dialogue with American popular culture in a number of ways, most obviously in the way that so many of the characters are directly engaged in working in the Culture Industry. Jules, for example, is a journalist who reports largely on pop culture figures, including movie starlet Kitty Jackson, another peripheral character. (Manwhile, his attempted rape of Kitty suggests the ways in which the popular press seems to think that it has a right to total access to the start it covers.) But the principal engagement of Goon Squad with American popular culture occurs in the fact that the music industry lies at the very center of the novel. In many ways, the central character of the novel is Bennie, who resides at the center of a nexus of connections that link many of the other characters.

The music business is certainly a crucial part of modern popular culture. It is important, however, that the focus in Goon Squad is not on mainstream pop music but on punk music, which originally evolved largely as a protest against the banality of mainstream pop music, seen as a result of the excessive emphasis on commercialization and marketability, rather than artistic quality or originality[3]. Bennie first participates in the world of popular music as a teenager when he (along with his friend, guitarist Scotty Hausmann) plays in a punk band called “The Flaming Dildos,” the very name of which reflects the attempt to shock bourgeois sensibilities that was so central to the punk aesthetic. Indeed, while Scotty seems to be a talented musician, the group seems more concerned with violating the rules of musical propriety than with producing actual music.

It is also important to note that the Dildos play in San Francisco, birthplace of the hippie counterculture that had flowered in the 1960s and then largely disintegrated by the mid-1970s. Indeed, the fall of hippie culture is directly noted in chapter three, which deals centrally with a key performance by the Flaming Dildos, its title (“Ask Me If I Care”) reflecting the supposed cynicism of the punk movement. Indeed, while the punks were most obviously rebelling against the banal conformism of establishment culture, they were also clearly mocking the idealism and utopianism that had once convinced the participants in the 1960s counterculture that they could build a genuinely better world. By 1979, when this chapter is set, the hippies are depicted as fallen and decrepit, their dreams broken. Thus, the chapter’s narrator, Rhea, a teenage friend of the band members, depicts San Francisco’s leftover hippies as decrepit relics, though one might also wonder if her disdain for them arises from an unconscious sense of guilt that her own generation has lost the progressive zeal that once drove the 1960s counterculture to try to do big things: “The hippies are getting old, they blew their brains on acid and now they’re begging on street corners all over San Francisco. Their hair is tangled and their bare feet are thick and gray as shoes. We’re sick of them” (47).

Punk culture was a cry of protest, less an attempt to change mainstream culture than a retreat from that culture in an attempt to create an alternative culture (and alternative identities) for its members. It is no accident, for example, that the British cultural studies scholar Dick Hebdige focused on punk culture in his important theoretical study of the phenomenon of “subcultures.” For Hebdige, punk culture is a classic example of the way in which disaffected youth, feeling excluded from the mainstream culture, often express their identities by developing a distinct cultural style of their own. His focus on the punks, he notes, is motivated by the fact that “no subculture has sought with more grim determination than the punks to detach itself from the taken-for-granted landscape of normalized forms, nor to bring down upon itself such vehement disapproval” (20). However, Hebdige argues that even the most radical, raucous, and intentionally disreputable subcultures have a tendency eventually to be appropriated by the mainstream if they are successful enough, becoming simply another example of the commodified culture that they were originally protesting against: “Youth cultural styles may begin by offering symbolic challenges, but they must inevitably end by establishing new sets of conventions; by creating new commodities, new industries, or rejuvenating old ones” (96). In short, the very countercultural forces that were originally meant to oppose the dehumanizing and spiritually impoverishing power of the system of capitalist commodification themselves tend to be co-opted by that system and to become a part of it.

Given this last observation, perhaps it is not surprising that Bennie would eventually become a commercially successful music producer, largely through his discovery of the hugely successful rock group The Conduits, who apparently have some roots in punk culture, but who moved into much more commercially successful and socially acceptable forms. Their style was somewhere between punk and ska at their peak in the late 1980s[4], but it is clear that their punk elements are decidedly watered down, whatever might have been added (130). Thus, when, years later, Bennie and his wife Stephanie move to an upscale suburb (signaling their own appropriation by polite bourgeois culture), they attend a local party hosted by a pretentious hedge fund manager who represents everything the punks were originally rebelling against. They learn, though, that the Conduits are this man’s favorite rock group—demonstrating just how safe and acceptable they really were, despite the notoriously spastic on-stage performance of their lead guitarist, Bosco (118).

Goon Squad, however, is not an entirely negative story about the appropriation of once-subversive energies by the juggernaut of mainstream culture. There are, in fact, moments of resistance to this kind of appropriation. Bennie himself greatly damages his career via a spectacular moment of protest when, in frustration at the demands of the corporate controllers of his record company that he produce commercially viable shit rather than actually good music, he serves a gathering of these corporate types with a lunch of cow pies. “‘You’re asking me to feed the people shit?’ Bennie had allegedly roared at the appalled executives. ‘Try eating some yourselves and see how it tastes!’” (316).

As a result of this display of contempt for corporate music, Bennie, pushing sixty in the last chapter of the book, has lost his once-prosperous record company and is now a minor independent record producer, still looking for the next big sound (based on the music, rather than the market). In this chapter, Bennie attempts to make a splash by promoting an important performance by his old associate Scotty, despite the fact that their relationship has been on the skids for years. Scotty, in fact, is the novel’s leading example of resistance to appropriation by the corporate culture of late capitalism. Having refused to follow the punk movement into its commodification, Scotty has been out of the music business for decades, working as a school janitor and sometimes fishing in New York’s East River.

Scotty himself narrates chapter six, in which his alienation from Benny is complete. Occurring back in the days when Bennie was riding high as the head of Sow’s Ear Records, this chapter is marked by Scotty’s show of contempt for what Bennie has become, as he visits Bennie’s posh offices and deposits there a large fish he has caught. By the final chapter, set some time in the 2020s, he has reconciled with Bennie, who has been managing Scotty’s low-key comeback, which has largely consisted of on-line recordings for young children, now the dominant audience in the music business.

In this chapter, though, Bennie attempts to accelerate Scotty’s comeback with a high-profile live concert at the former site of the World Trade Center, the 9/11 destruction of which lurks in the background of all of the events of the novel subsequent to that destruction. Meanwhile, Bennie enlists Alex, an important character from chapter one who now re-emerges, to promote the concert by hiring “parrots,” individuals who are paid to talk up the concert and encourage others to attend, feigning personal enthusiasm for Scotty’s work. Alex’s efforts are a big success, and a huge crowd turns out for the concert. Perhaps surprisingly, a reluctant Scotty, playing the unlikely instrument of a slide guitar, manages to come up with a rousing performance that is a huge hit with the crowd, seemingly opening great possibilities for his future. Beginning with the infantile hits he has already put out there—such as “I am a Little Lamb,” “Goats Like Oats,” and “A Little Tree Is Just Like Me,” he then moves into more adult fare expressing his raw existential rage. For Alex, these later songs are “ballads of paranoia and disconnection ripped from the chest of a man you knew just by looking had never had a page or a profile or a handle or a handset, who was part of no one’s data, a guy who had lived in the cracks all these years, forgotten and full of rage, in a way that now registered as pure” (338–339).

For his part, Alex isn’t sure if Scotty’s success comes from the quality of his music or from the fact that he is in the right place at the right time for such music to strike a chord with the hungry audience. But it seems clear that the concert has the potential to be a turning point in an American culture that was beginning desperately to yearn for something new and significant. Soctty’s music appears to appeal to all generations, from infants to sixty-year-olds like Bennie, though its appeal seems most significant for Generation Zers such as Bennie’s young employee Lulu, the daughter of Dolly (a publicist who features prominently in chapter eight of the novel). Lulu stands in the crowd with Joe, her black fiancé from Kenya, a PhD student involved in robotics research[5], the two of them seemingly emblematic of a potential better future in all sorts of ways. But they have also lived their lives in a time of hardship and cynicism, with little in the way of a coherent program to believe in. Now, however, the two of them look at Scotty with “the rhapsodic joy of a generation finally descrying someone worthy of its veneration” (340).

Scotty’s almost total escape from digital experience might be seen as fueling the ability of his music to connect with audiences at a very human level. However, Egan’s treatment of the digital, while largely satirical, is not entirely negative—if only because she knows quite well that Time the Goon marches on and will never let us return to a pre-digital age. The best we can do, per Goon Squad, is to preserve our humanity amidst the growing digitalization of our experience. As Fladager puts it, “Her work displays a belief in the pervasive effects of humanism and ambiguity within systems, especially digital- and marketing-based information systems, to create play and ambiguity, and in doing so presents us with an optimism that is not techno-utopian, but is related: the age-old belief in the human, whatever the circumstances” (326).

We’re not sure what might come of the popular discovery of Scotty’s new music, as the novel’s final pages veer off in a seemingly new direction. Alex and Bennie are also impressed by Scotty’s performance, but perhaps less inspired than Lulu and Joe. In fact, rather than look to the future, Alex (a generation older than Lulu) and Bennie (almost two generations older than Lulu), suddenly become nostalgic about Sasha, with whom Alex had a brief sexual encounter in chapter one and who was once a valued assistant to Bennie, as detailed especially in chapter two. They then go together to her former apartment—and of course do not find her there[6]. At the same time, they do see another young woman, presumably starting out her own life in New York with a fresh supply of hopes and dreams, entering the apartment where Sasha once lived. Time the Goon might catch up with us all in the end, but there is always a fresh supply of young people ready to take it on, which is the only way we have of beating the goon at its own game—or at least of fighting it to a draw, thus giving the novel a more upbeat ending than we might have expected[7].

Brief Summary of the Individual Chapters

1. “Found Objects”

The first story in Goon Squad focuses on a young woman by the name of Sasha, a young kleptomaniac whose proclivity toward petty theft does not seem to be curbed by the therapy she is undergoing, with a therapist named “Coz.” She steals not because she wants or needs items, but simply because she finds the activity of theft fulfilling in some way that even she seems not to understand. The items do, however, seem to take on a fetishistic quality for her. In this story, she is on a first date with a man named Alex, having a meal in a hotel restaurant. She steals a woman’s wallet from a restroom in the hotel, then returns it when she realizes what an impact the theft will have on the woman. She takes Alex back to her apartment, which features a tub and shower in the kitchen (not to mention an almost shrine-like display of items she has stolen. They have sex. Afterward, Alex can’t resist trying out the unusual tub. Sasha, meanwhile, goes through his wallet and finds a worn note reading “I BELIEVE IN YOU,” which she steals. Sets a baseline for the present day, told in the third person but clearly from Sasha’s perspective. Provides the information that Sasha had earlier worked for twelve years as record producer Bennie Salazar’s assistant at Sow’s Ear Records. (We will eventually learn that she was fired for stealing.)

2. “The Gold Cure”

Introduces Bennie himself, who is in many ways the central character of the novel, and to whom almost all of the other characters are connected in one way or another. The title refers to Bennie’s habit of dissolving flakes of real gold in his coffee before he drinks it, in the hope that the metal will somehow restore his flagging sex drive. Sasha (now working as Bennie’s personal assistant after an extended stint working for his company) and Bennie’s son Christopher (who lives with his mother, Bennie’s ex-wife) attend a performance of one of Bennie’s bands, Stop/Go, composed mostly of two sisters but seemingly fading in promise. Bennie makes a move on Sasha, but she gently rejects the advance, saying that their professional relationship is too important to jeopardize. Set in the fairly recent past, told in the third person from Bennie’s perspective.

3. “Ask Me If I Care”

Bennie and Scotty’s high school punk band, The Flaming Dildos, score a show at a prominent club, “The Mab” (Mabuhay Gardens, a prominent punk club that closed in 1987), thanks partly to the support of an affluent middle-aged music producer named Lou Kline, who is dating their teenage friend Jocelyn. The show starts out badly but is eventually something of a success (by punk standards). Set around 1980 in San Francisco, narrated in first-person by Rhea, a friend of the band.

4. “Safari”

Lou takes two of his children, Rolph and Charlene, and his new girlfriend Mindy, on a hunting safari in Kenya. Set in 1973, the story is told in the third person, mostly from Mindy’s perspective and details a lion attack that happens on the safari. Mindy clearly has some doubts about the relationship, but she will ultimately become Lou’s third wife and the mother of his fifth and sixth children.

5. “You (Plural)”

Jocelyn and Rhea visit Lou on his death bed, twenty or so years after they first met Lou. Set about a decade in the past, narrated in third-person present-tense by Jocelyn, who is still trying to find her way in life. She is living back with her mother and struggling to finish her BA at UCLA.

6. “X’s and O’s”

Scotty Hausmann, now working as a school janitor, claims not to be jealous of the success of his old partner Bennie in the music business. Nevertheless, Scotty delivers a large fish to Bennie at his posh Sow’s Ear Records office, where they have a tense standoff. Set a few years in the past, told by Scotty in first person.

7. “A to B”

A bit of suburban satire in which Bennie and wife Stephanie move to an affluent suburb, where they struggle to fit in, including joining a country club with some decidedly racist members. Stephanie’s brother Jules Jones, a journalist, is released after five years in prison for his attack on Kitty Jackson, even though Kitty ultimately testified for the defense. Stephanie is working as a freelance publicist, including working for Bosco on his attempted comeback. Stephanie and Jules call on Bosco, who reveals that his comeback tour will be a “suicide tour”: he plans to perform in such a way that he is almost certain eventually to collapse and die on stage, thus generating interest. (He will survive the tour and end up owning a dairy farm.) Jules, looking for a break, agrees to become the official chronicler of the tour. Set a few years in the past, told in the third person from Stephanie’s perspective.

8. “Selling the General”

Dolly, a washed-up publicist, enlists the once famous starlet Kitty Jackson, whose career is now waning, to help her when she is hired to soften the image of a murderous dictator who has hired Dolly for that purpose. Kitty at first turns on her famous charm, but then begins to call out the general for his genocidal policies, leading to a crisis. Set in the present, narrated in the third person from Dolly’s perspective.

9. “Forty Minute Lunch: Kitty Jackson Opens Up About Love, Fame and Nixon! Jules Jones Reports”

Jules interviews nineteen-year-old starlet Kitty Jackson, as he has been hired to write a magazine article about her. During the interview, he learns that she has owned a horse named “Nixon” (not named for the president) since childhood. However, as their lunch is drawing to a close, Jules convinces Kitty to go for a walk with him in Central Park, where he assaults her, apparently overcome by her legendary sexual charisma. She repels the assault and, at least in the short term, experiences a boost to her career from the subsequent publicity, being declared her generation’s Marilyn Monroe. Set a few years in the past, presented as a magazine article that Jules writes while in prison.

10. “Out of Body”

Rob and Drew, Sasha’s boyfriend (and future husband), spend a night partying, before they go for a swim in the East River, where Rob (who has a gay crush on Drew) drowns. Set a decade or so in the past, told in the second person from Rob’s perspective.

11. “Goodbye, My Love” – Art history professor Ted Hollander is in Naples, ostensibly looking for his niece Sasha, who disappeared two years before. However, Ted is using the all-expenses-paid trip as an excuse to visit museums and see art. Set about a decade and a half in the past, told in the third person from Ted’s point of view. He does, however, find Sasha, though she is, for the present, content to remain in Naples.

12. “Great Rock and Roll Pauses by Alison Blake” – Set about 15 years in the future, presented as a PowerPoint presentation made by Alison (12), the daughter of Drew and Sasha, focusing on the function of pauses (silences) in rock music, a topic that fascinates her slightly autistic brother Lincoln (13). But her PowerPoints also give us an excellent view into the workings of the Blake family.

13. “Pure Language” – Alex, now an audio technician, is hired by Bennie to find 50 ‘parrots’ – essentially people paid to spread fake enthusiasm for Scotty’s debut solo show. He works through Bennie’s young employee Lulu (daughter of Dolly). The show turns out to be a huge success, though afterward Alex experiences a wave of nostalgia for his first days in New York, when he met Sasha. He hardly remembers her, but he associates her with his youthful days, when everything was still possible. Set about 15 years in the future, told from Alex’s point of view in the third person. Includes certain science fictional elements, such as the almost universal use of “handsets,” including “Starfish” handsets, designed for toddlers and infants, who can work them simply by pointing at items on the screen.

Works Cited

Bakhtin, M. M. The Dialogic Imagination. Edited by Michael Holquist, translated by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, University of Texas Press, 1981.

Cowart, David. “Thirteen Ways of Looking: Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, vol. 56, no. 3, 215, pp. 241–54.

Fladager, Daniel. “Jennifer Egan’s Digital Archive: A Visit from the Goon Squad, Humanism, and the Digital Experience.” LIT: Literature, Interpretation, Theory, vol. 31, no. 4, October 2020, pp. 313–27.

Hartmann, Johanna. “Paratextualized Forms of Fictional Self-Narration: Footnotes, Headnotes and Endnotes in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad.” Symbolism, vol. 15, 2105, pp. 101–20.

Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. Rev. ed., Routledge, 1979.

Jameson, Fredric. “Postmodernism and Consumer Society.” The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture. Edited by Hal Foster, New Press, 2002, pp. 127–44.

Moling, Martin. “‘No Future’: Time, Punk Rock and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad.” Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory, Vol. 72, No. 1, Spring 2016, pp. 51-77.

Strong, Melissa A. “Found time: Kairos in A Visit from the Goon Squad.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, vol. 59, no. 4, pp. 471-480.


[1] See Hartmann for a discussion of some of the “paratextual” aspects of the text, including footnotes and the PowerPoint chapter.

[2] There is also a completely digital form of this chapter that can be found on Egan’s website at This version is very colorful and includes audio on some of the slides, making it much more of a legitimate multimedia presentation in the mode that PowerPoint is intended to be.

[3] For an extensive exploration of the relevance of punk music to Goon Squad, see Moling.

[4] A style that was a fusion of ska and punk (known as “ska punk”) was, in fact, quite popular in the U.S. in the late 1980s and 1990s), as seen by the commercial success of such ska punk bands as No Doubt and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones.

[5] On the other hand, while robotics research is clearly futuristic, we have already been told (it’s almost useful to be attentive when reading this novel) that Joe’s most important contribution might be the invention of a “scanning device that becomes standard issue for crowd security,” suggesting that his work might potentially be put to dystopian uses (69).

[6] We know (but they don’t) that Sasha, who is now a wife and mother—as well as an artist who has converted her former kleptomania into gathering miscellaneous pieces of “trash and our old toys” to use to construct sculptures in the California desert, which then fall apart as “part of the process,” according to one of her daughter Alison’s PowerPoints in chapter twelve (246). In Egan’s later novel The Candy House (2022), we learn that Sasha’s sculptures are assembled from discarded pieces of plastic, then melted down into bricks and recycled for sale in museums, presumably to make an environmentalist point.

[7] See Strong for a detailed exploration of the many aspects of the novel that can be seen as positive and optimistic.