To borrow briefly from the argot directed at bad bands: Novels about rock ’n’ roll almost always suck. Writing fiction about punk, pop, or any of rock’s permutations means navigating a minefield of cliché without the helpful (maybe necessary) aid of sound and vision. The subject has undone many novelists, painting even titans like Don DeLillo (Great Jones Street) and Jonathan Lethem (You Don’t Love Me Yet) into cringe-worthy corners. A Visit From The Goon Squad, the latest from Jennifer Egan, bestselling author of 2007’s The Keep—almost bucks the dispiriting trend, but then Bennie Salazar’s band, the Flaming Dildos, takes the stage, their singer is pelted with garbage, and “Joel clobbers his drums as Scotty screams out the chorus What the fuck? / What the fuck? / What the fuck?” (At the very least, it’s an apt query.)
Egan has constructed Goon Squad as a kind of concept album in prose, even splitting the book into parts A and B like the sides of a record. Its 13 chapters work like songs penned in wildly different styles. One is a hilariously rendered celebrity-profile puff piece written by an author jailed for attacking his subject. Almost 80 pages are devoted to PowerPoint slides whose cumulative effect is a surprising pathos, in spite of the deliberately icy presentation. Another, “Out Of Body,” is written in second person, and almost delivers on its titular promise. The chapter “Goodbye, My Love” ends with a simple, sunlit moment that is probably the novel’s most affecting single image.
Egan moves freely back and forth through the decades, with her characters becoming tangentially related or their fates explicitly colliding. The loose locus of the whole cast is that frontman Bernie Salazar, who marches through the action like a post-punk Sergeant Pepper. From the 1970s through 2020, he evolves from a bass-playing Dildo to a high-powered executive at Sow’s Ear Records to the Bill Graham-esque mastermind behind his old mate Scotty’s triumphant comeback performance in the Footprint (capital “F” now—it’s a public space where the World Trade Center stood 19 years previous).
But just as some of the early scenes that played out in punk venues get tripped up in the usual rock-fiction traps, the abrupt shift to speculative fiction in the last act slightly bungles what is supposed to be the triumphant closing number. (Why for instance, with 10 more years of practice on increasingly superior “handsets,” have we gotten even worse at texting?: “Nvr met my dad. Dyd b4 I ws brn.”) A Visit From The Goon Squad isn’t the great rock ’n’ roll novel, but the fact that it’s a good one is a small triumph to salve the letdown.