A Visit from the Goon Squad

By Jennifer Egan

Alfred A. Knopf. 288 pp. $24.95

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Reviewed by David Hiltbrand


I n her audacious, extraordinary fourth novel,

A Visit from the Goon Squad

, Jennifer Egan uses the pop-music business as a prism to examine the heedless pace of modern life, generational impasses, and the awful gravity of age and entropy.

The spine of the book is Bennie Salazar, a record-label owner frustrated with trying to create meaningful music in the age of Autotune:

"He worked tirelessly, feverishly, to get things right, to stay on top, make songs that people would love and buy and download as ring tones (and steal, of course) - above all, to satisfy the multinational crude-oil extractors he'd sold his label to five years ago."

Still, Bennie isn't happy with the music he's producing: "Too clear, too clean. The problem was precision, perfection; the problem was digitization, which sucked the life out of everything that got smeared through its microscopic mesh. Film, photography, music: dead. An aesthetic holocaust! Bennie knew better than to say these things aloud."

We follow Bennie back to his teenage years as a mohawked punk musician in San Francisco, moshing at the Mabuhay Gardens.

We even venture with him into the future, where marketing is almost exclusively viral and music is promoted by word of tweet to an alarmingly young target audience.

Here is the office worker of tomorrow: "Lulu was in her early twenties, a graduate student at Barnard and Bennie's full-time assistant: a living embodiment of the new 'handset' employee: paperless, deskless, commuteless, and theoretically omnipresent, though Lulu appeared to be ignoring a constant chatter of handset beeps and burps."

Bennie and his travails are but a small part of A Visit from the Goon Squad. The book shifts constantly over four decades and among a daunting cast of characters, most of whom have some connection, however tenuous, to the music business and to each other. The primary relationship for the majority of these people is with their psychiatrist.

Egan, a 1985 University of Pennsylvania graduate and author of the much-praised novel The Keep (2006), introduces us to the burnouts, the sellouts, and the emotionally handicapped. Her focus is on the energy, recklessness, and vanity of youth. But she offers snapshots of her large cast in many stages of their lives, even dotage.

When Lou Klein, a legendary music producer, is wheeled out in a hospital bed to his scenic pool deck overlooking L.A., you can practically see the wake of human debris caused by a lifetime of his decadent indulgence.

A Visit from the Goon Squad is fascinating for its daring scope and fractured narrative, but along the way, Egan crafts some brilliant scenes, including a staged PR photo op for a genocidal dictator, a rock star on safari in Africa, and the most disturbing magazine profile of an emerging starlet you will ever read.

One significant stylistic experiment falls flat: Ally, the daughter of one of Bennie's former assistants, diagrams her home life and her troubles with her mom like a graphic self-help book. For 70 vacuous pages.

Despite that curious caesura, A Visit from the Goon Squad is a rich and rewarding novel. Egan, who will read from the book at the Free Library of Philadelphia next Thursday at 7:30 p.m., delivers a cautionary tale about the commodification and carelessness of our society.

The music business is an effective framing device for her to explore the ways life branches and flows in random but remarkable patterns, the ways in which we fortify and tear at each other.

Inquirer staff writer David Hiltbrand is the author of several mysteries, most recently "Dying To Be Famous" (Avon). Contact him at 215-854-4552 or dhiltbrand@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ daveondemand.