By Jennifer Egan
288 pages; Knopf
"Nostalgia was the end," proclaims '90s record producer Bennie Salazar in A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan's wildly ambitious novel about the music business, media technology, and culture. By the 21st century, Bennie is the nostalgic one, bemoaning "digitization, which sucked the life out of everything that got smeared through its microscopic mesh. Film, photography, music: dead. An aesthetic holocaust!"
Having acknowledged the danger of technology ambushing art, Egan constructs a tour de force, telling her story backward, forward, and sideways from chapter to chapter and sometimes switching gears within a chapter. The cast of characters is unforgettable: Along with the cynical but passionate Bennie and his mentor, Lou, there's the seemingly self-destructive Sasha, Bennie's former assistant with a penchant for stealing, and the genius musician Scotty, whose downward spiral parallels Bennie's rise, plus many others who appear and reappear in shifting roles that are sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, often strange, but never quirky-cute.
Ultimately Egan's pyrotechnics serve the novel's emotional and philosophical message—as in the penultimate chapter, in which a PowerPoint presentation evokes the poignant dynamics of a family through the eyes of the presentation's 12-year-old creator.
Music is both subject and metaphor as Egan explores the mutability of time, destiny, and individual accountability post-technology. "Time's a goon, right?" Bennie challenges jittery Scotty at one point. "You're gonna let that goon push you around?" Well, Egan doesn't, that's for sure.