Back to the Future: Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad

Leon Neyfakh | August 16th, 2010

If you like Back to the Future, you’ll love Jennifer Egan’s new novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad. No, there’s no actual time travel in the book, but the stories in it are told out of chronological order, so as far as the reader is concerned there might as well be. Adult characters you meet early on reappear in later chapters as children, and vice versa. Sasha, who is a 35-year-old assistant at a record label in the book’s opening, is shown later as a student at N.Y.U., and then again as an 18-year-old girl who has run away from home and gone backpacking in Europe. Because each section is told from a different perspective you find out different facts about her each time she reappears, and the math you do in your head as you’re putting it together produces a relentlessly titillating effect.

The “novel-in-stories” has been a fashionable play in book publishing lately — Keith Gessen’s All the Sad Young Literary Men, Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists are two other recent examples — but that doesn’t make the tangle of relationships that connects all the characters in Goon Squad any less impressive or convincing. Characters who are peripheral in one chapter are revisited later and placed at the center of the action. Backstory is deployed deliberately, every reveal timed for maximum punch.

There’s an inimitable flavor of ache Egan manages to conjure by showing us Sasha as a teenager only after we find out what’s going to happen to her when she’s a grown-up — how her priorities will change, how the range of emotions she feels will totally shift.

It really did remind me of Back to the Future: Call me crazy, but is there anything better than seeing Marty McFly and Jennifer Parker as a middle aged married couple in part two, after you’ve known them as seventeen year olds forever? Or how about seeing Marty’s mom in the first one, all puffy and pallid at the beginning of the movie, as a radiant high school student in 1955? It’s thrilling the first time you see it, and it never stops being thrilling.

There are lots of moments like that in Goon Squad, which follows an ensemble cast that includes musicians, producers, executives, publicists, and journalists as they try to a greater or lesser extent to hold onto their personalities while growing older and increasingly locked into lives they can’t control. Finding out little by little what roles each of them has played in the others’ lives scratches a very particular itch.

It’s not gimmicky, if that’s what you’re thinking. Though I mainly never forgot that Egan was presiding over the show the whole time, controlling what I saw when, it was also plain that she put surgical care into the arrangement, that she hadn’t just broken apart an ordinary, left-to-right storyline and shuffled it for funsies. It’s not a trivial maneuver undertaken for attention: There’s an inimitable flavor of ache Egan manages to conjure by showing us Sasha as a teenager only after we find out what’s going to happen to her when she’s a grown-up — how her priorities will change, how the range of emotions she feels will totally shift.

As I read the first half of the novel, I kept worrying that Egan was trying to say all the connections between her characters were evidence of something like fate. It was most acute in the fourth chapter, about a family’s trip to Africa, in which she describes a record producer’s teenage daughter dancing provocatively in front of a young local warrior who earns money entertaining American tourists. Egan wastes no time taking a big gulp of air and going through the guy’s entire future history:

“Thirty-five years from now, in 2008, this warrior will be caught in the tribal violence between the Kikuyu and the Luo and will die in a fire. He’ll have had four wives and sixty-three grandchildren by then, one of whom, a boy named Joe, will inherit his lalema: the iron hunting dagger in a leather scabbard now hanging at his side. Joe will go to college at Columbia and study engineering, becoming an expert in visual robotic technology that detects the slightest hint of irregular movement (the legacy of a childhood spent scanning the grass for lions). He’ll marry an American named Lulu and remain in New York, where he’ll invent a scanning device that becomes standard issue for crowd security.”

This felt cheap to me, this dramatic fast-forwarding, in a way the rest of the book didn’t. It’s a montage, basically, and the way Egan delivers it, it’s like she’s trying to say that what happens during a person’s life is all predetermined — that you can look at a teenager and see his future in his eyes. I still don’t know if that’s the point of A Visit From the Goon Squad —if all these disappointed individuals who populate the book are all doomed from the start.

For what it’s worth: At the end of Back to the Future III, when Doc Brown and his beloved Clara arrive in 1985 in a time traveling train, Doc joyously tells Marty, who is worried about his destiny, that the future hasn’t been written yet — that his life is whatever he makes of it.

Goon Squad does not end so cheerfully. The bleak last chapter, which takes place in the all-too-near future, describes a dystopian society of doomed computer addicts whose consciousness and individuality is expressed primarily through the product endorsements they post to social networking sites. Whether or not there are flying cars is not addressed.