"The subconscious can be a very powerful force. And thank God for that, because without it, I would have a sub par IQ."


An exclusive HITS dialogue with A Visit from the Goon Squad author Jennifer Egan
To call A Visit from the Goon Squad a book about the music business is to seriously underestimate the scope of 47-year-old author Jennifer Egan’s fourth novel, though her love of pop and rock is one of its major tropes. But it also deals with the inevitable passage of time seen through the distorted lens of memory, how our childhood dreams can mutate into our adult ambitions, the value of a well-placed pause as well as being a satire of modern-day manners on such ephemeral phenomena as the celebrity magazine profile, Power Point, erectile dysfunction, country clubs, living off the grid, publicity divas and African safaris for rich people. But the book itself beats with the heart of a music fan, its 13 self-enclosed, but interlocking, short stories, divided into an A and B side, as Egan points out, “like a record album,” and much of what she describes as “defining” experiences in the San Francisco punk scene of the late ‘70s finds its way into the often hilariously dark narrative. It is one of the most entertaining novels of the year, and would make a superb HBO series. It’s too late to be the perfect summer read, but you get the idea. In fact, order it on Amazon now. HITS’ own frustrated Goon Squad captain Roy “Rhymes with Tolstoy” Trakin, who gets to talk to a real writer for a change, guarantees you’ll thank him.

To say that the book is about the music business is to do it a disservice. It’s about so much more.
I love the idea of reaching the music community, which is not necessarily what a book publicist would look to, and maybe should have. I just like that you found your way to it. How did you?

The fact that you’re a music fan comes through pretty clearly.
I was thrilled to see a review of the book on a music website. I’m not a music industry person, but I feel nostalgia, a sense of empathy and concern for the record business, and many other businesses that are right behind it, that are beginning to flounder in the face of the digital. I really feel for the artists trying to work in this totally different environment. It seems to have changed almost overnight.

Were the record producers Bennie Salazar and Lou based on any real-life character?
No, I never really use real-life people. I’m really bad at that. I just make up my characters. My weakest area is writing about people I know, or worse, myself. That’s where I get inhibited and frozen. The farther I am from my own experience, the easier I find it to just plunge in. There’s a cliché version of every one of the characters, types that we have misconceptions about and pigeonhole in various ways. What interested me was brushing all that away and finding the nuance, the private life inside.

This is going to be a tough book to market, though. You can’t describe it in a single sentence.
You’ve kinda articulated the story line. I always knew that would be the case, but when I’m writing, I just want to have fun, and try to do something that feels fresh and interesting. And hope it’ll all work out in the end. I’m surprised it has received as much attention as it did. I’m ecstatic about the great reviews. Despite all of that, I still feel like, will it find a broad audience? We just live in a world, if you can’t nail it in one sentence, you are in big trouble. If my first priority was commercial success, I probably would’ve picked a different profession.

Maybe if you called it A Visit from the Vampire Squad?
[Laughs] Why didn’t I think of that? That’s such an easy one.

Your narrative style is sort of similar to Lost, where they go back and forward in time, with a sort of jigsaw puzzle approach.
You’re not the first person to compare it to Lost, which I don’t really watch. But I really do love The Sopranos. I was consciously thinking of that show, with people moving from being central to being peripheral and back again. That show is all about opening up these clichéd characters and showing us how neurotic they really are. I found that very exciting. My structural model most overtly is the record album, which is partly out of nostalgia, and my desire to honor it. There’s an A side and a B side, and each chapter is a track on the album. The album, unlike most novels, can have abrupt shifts in mood from track to track. With this atomized music purchasing, it’s difficult for any artist to come up with a whole that’s more than the sum of its parts, and having anyone actually engage with it. And I found myself very sympathetic toward musicians. That would be like writing a book and only being able to sell chapters. And people looking to see which chapter was the most popular, and buying that. What a nightmare! How do you create a grand vision if people refuse to engage with it?

You take 75 pages of the book with a chapter told completely in Power Point.
It was actually very hard to find a way to write fiction in Power Point, but I wanted to do it so badly. And I don’t think I knew why I wanted to do it until I realized, in a way, it’s the part of the book where the mindset, or the dramatic motions of the book, become most manifest. I’m so interested in the moments where time seems to stop. And that’s the pause. Being able to actually create a pause graphically was so exciting to me, so much fun.

With its interest in time, the book is a throwback to the 19th century novel.
I have faith in the novel as a flexible and robust form. The classic narrators of the 19th century novel were constantly lecturing to the reader, intervening, full of asides, digressions and commentary.

Do you want to continue the story of these characters?
I feel like I could. In a noncommittal way, I could brush up against them again without feeling like I were writing a capitol S “sequel.” I’m really interested in writing a historical novel, too. That’s going to be my next challenge.

Was the late ‘70s in the San Francisco punk scene a defining musical moment for you?
In a way, it was. When I was in high school, I went to the Mabuhay Gardens a lot because it was a very exciting moment, a real feeling of something new happening there. I loved the music, how hard core it was. I still love that kind of sound. But I wasn’t an insider. I didn’t have friends in the punk-rock world. I was an observer. Anyone could pay their money and get in. I made the most of it. It left a huge impression. Your teenage musical experience tends to be so defining, and it becomes an aspect of your identity that distinguishes you from other people who came of age at different moments.

The book suggests that music you listen to affects what happens to you in your life.
Embracing that hard-core sound then, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn it’s impacted my sensibilities to this moment. It certainly helped me to define my interest in ragged, raw, rough things. And I’m grateful to it for that.

Is the title from the Elvis Costello song?
I’m not really a big Elvis Costello fan, but it’s been pointed out to me. It’s a ‘70s word. I knew that I liked that title 10 years ago. I wasn’t even sure what book would really attach itself to the title, but I found it intriguing. The subconscious can be a very powerful force. And thank God for that, because without it, I would have a sub par IQ. I really rely on my subconscious to do my work for me.

photo by Pieter M. Van Hattem