"Time is a goon, right?" asks a passing character—in a book chock full of passing
characters—some one hundred pages into Jennifer Egan’s novel
A Visit from the
Goon Squad
. "Isn’t that the expression?"

"I’ve never heard that," comes the response.

"Would you disagree?"

There’s a pause, and finally the
considered judgment. "No."

Okay, I hadn't heard that saying
either   According to my dictionary,
a goon is "someone big and dumb
who commits acts of violence for
money.”  (My spouse chimes in
now:  "No, that’s an NFL player…")  

What’s Egan up to here?  Although she is
serving up a brash rock-and-roll novel,
our author is clearly unconvinced by Mick Jagger’s assertion
"Time is on my side"
or David Byrne’s proclamation that "Time isn’t after us.  Time isn’t holding us."  In A
Visit from the Goon Squad
, Father Time has apparently sharpened his scythe and
joined a street gang.  

Critics are forever tempted to compare novels to other novels—a lamentably
reductive process, but one that at least gives potential readers some measuring
rod for what they might encounter in a new work.  So indulge me.  In this instance,
Egan’s willingness to play fanciful games with chronology brings to mind two
famous books about heroes "unstuck" in time—or, borrowing Egan's jargon, books
in which
time is a goon—Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five and Audrey
The Time Traveler’s Wife.   But Egan’s work reminded me even
more forcefully of the one-story-begets-another virtuosity David Mitchell
demonstrated in his novel 2004
Cloud Atlas.  In both works, each chapter is
connected to the next one in the same way I might, by playing the
"six degrees of
separation" game, find my personal connection to the President of the US or the
Dalai Lama.

Like each of these three predecessors, Egan presents a genre mashup that mixes
in elements of science fiction without losing her book's pedigree as a "serious
book."  I’ve
written at length about this trend in contemporary fiction, and in
particular about imaginative power of recent works of literary fiction that borrow
genre elements, but Egan’s
A Visit from the Goon Squad is one of the most
striking examples yet of this tendency at work.    

Yet Egan offers her own twists that you won’t find in any predecessor—both in the
formal structure and kaleidoscopic content of this brilliant work. Each chapter in
Visit from the Goon Squad
abandons the central plot of the preceding chapter, but
holds on to a least one familiar character—who serves a springboard to set
another story in motion.  These separate tales are each so individually compelling,
that I was reluctant to move on to the next.  Indeed, I feared that Egan was leaving
behind more loose threads than a frisky cat in a yarn store.  But—
mirabile dictu
she somehow manages to resolve almost every plot complication during the
course of this peripatetic novel.  And she does this, moreover, without every
returning directly to the plots she has abandoned.  The structural wizardry involved
here is quite prepossessing.  

That said, the content is as extravagant as the formal architecture of the novel.   
Consider yourself forewarned: if you are looking for stories built on subtle aperçus
and ruminative accounts of the quotidian, you are advised to steer clear of
A Visit
from the Goon Squad
. A manic and maximalist sensibility pervades this work, and
as the chapters move along, Egan seems to be engaged in a game of can-you-top-
this with herself.  

Which story here is the edgiest?  Is it the tale of the NY publicist who takes on a
genocidal dictator as client, and makes him wear a fluffy hat to improve his
image?  Is it the story of the journalist for a major magazine who interviews a starlet
over lunch, and then decides to abduct and assault her instead?  Is it the interlude
about the ailing rock star who wants to go on a suicide tour, pushing himself so
hard on stage night after night that fans will come—if only to see if he will collapse
and die in mid-performance?   

Yet the final sections of the book, which take place a decade or more in the future,
make these preliminary stories seem tame by comparison.  Egan drags her key
characters into a dystopian nightmare scenario, a world ravaged by global
warming and waning resources.  These stories stay true to Egan’s character-
driven approach to fiction—so the science and technology never become the main
course here, as in so many "genuine" sci-fi books.  The landscape is more akin to
the futuristic urban environments that serve as backdrop to, say, Jonathan Lethem's
Chronic City or David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.  By setting this part of the
book in the future, Egan is not driven by an obsession with gadgetry and
technology—although she offers some creative perspectives here.  Rather, she
embraces the openness of unwritten history as a way of re-imagining the cultural
and personal perspectives of her story and as a springboard for psychologically
rich narrative development.  She is as interested in what people's attitudes will be
like in the future as in their high tech accessories.

Her depiction of a world in which marketing concepts become psychological
frameworks—imagine Freud rewritten by the faculty of Harvard Business School,
and you will get an idea of what she is up to—is both insightful and hilarious.  But I
am even more shaken by her attempt to project both the future of storytelling and
the future of music.  What do they look like?  It’s worse than I could have believed,
and all too plausible:  stories morph into corporate PowerPoint presentations and
the music industry is built on the tastes of 4 year-olds.  In all honesty, these visions
are just logical extensions of what we already see around us—but perhaps that
very fact is what makes them so frightening.

I read and enjoyed Egan’s previous novel
The Keep, but she has moved up a
notch, or maybe even two, with his follow-up work.  In short,
A Visit from the Goon
is an important work, a crystallization of many of the most provocative
developments in contemporary fiction, yet also freshly original in its deviations and
digressions.  It's worth adding that
A Visit from the Goon Squad is also what non-
academics call “a good read.”  And that rare combination of smarts and sheer
storytelling panache will keep me on the lookout for what else this very creative
author might have up her sleeve.
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A Visit from the Goon Squad
by Jennifer Egan
Essay by Ted Gioia
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50 favorite works of non-realist fiction
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will include works of magical realism,
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fantasy, as well as mainstream literary
fiction that pushes boundaries and
challenges conventional notions of

conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Blind Assassin

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Bacigalupi, Paolo
The Windup Girl

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barker, Clive
Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Bierce, Ambrose
The Complete Short Stories

Blackwood, Algernon
The Complete John Silence Stories

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Brooks, Max
World War Z

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Butler, Octavia E.

Campbell, Ramsey
Demons by Daylight

Campbell, Ramsey
The Nameless

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chambers, Robert W.
The King in Yellow

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Cline, Ernest
Ready Player One

Crichton, Michael
Jurassic Park

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Dickens, Charles
A Christmas Carol

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Egan, Jennifer
A Visit from the Goon Squad

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gardner, John

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Hendrix, Grady

Herbert, Frank

Joe Hill
Heart-Shaped Box

Hill, Susan
The Woman in Black

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Houellebecq, Michel

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Ishiguro, Kazuo
Never Let Me Go

Jackson, Shirley
The Haunting of Hill House

James, Henry
The Turn of the Screw

James, M.R.
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Ketchum, Jack
Off Season

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

King, Stephen

King, Stephen
Pet Sematary

Koja, Kathe
The Cipher

Krilanovich, Grace
The Orange Eats Creeps

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Our Lady of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Levin, Ira
Rosemary's Baby

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Lindqvist, John Ajvide
Let the Right One In

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Lovecraft, H.P.

Machen, Arthur
The Great God Pan

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
I Am Legend

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o
Wizard of the Crow

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Oyeyemi, Helen
White is for Witching

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Poe, Edgar Allan
Tales of Mystery & Imagination

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Rice, Anne
Interview with the Vampire

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Roth, Philip
The Plot Against America

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Clark Ashton
The Dark Eidolon

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Straub, Peter
Ghost Story

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stevenson, Robert Louis
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde

Stoker, Bram

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Tryon, Thomas
The Other

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
The Dragon Masters

Vance, Jack

Vance, Jack
The Languages of Pao

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vollmann, William T
Last Stories and Other Stories

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Wallace, Edgar
King Kong

Walpole, Horace
The Castle of Otranto

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Wong, David
John Dies at the End

Woolf, Virginia

Yamada, Taichi

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features

Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

Links to related sites

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