The rise of the Internet has prompted much worry about the future of the serious novel as the ubiquity of electronic gadgets and the skyrocketing popularity of social networking sites seems destined to drain the time and attention span available for books with depth.
Along comes Jennifer Egan, whose new novel is above all about the vast and myriad ways in which technology has radically altered the way humans live and communicate. It`s a nice reminder that even in the age of Kindles and Facebook, ambitious fiction is still one of the best tools available to help us understand the rapidly changing world.
"A Visit From the Goon Squad" in its way resembles the kind of social novel that Charles Dickens once cranked out regularly. It features more than a dozen disparate but vivid characters, from a powerful businessman to a Latin American dictator to a group of teenage punk rockers; and the action ranges over five decades and three continents.
But Egan has abandoned the straightforward narrative that marks most socially minded novels in favor of a series of linked stories that jump around in time and space and between a set of characters with sometimes tenuous connections. It calls to mind nothing so much as the fragmentary experience of surfing the Web.
The linked stories primarily circle out from two principle characters: Bennie Salazar, a teenage punker who has grown up to be a wealthy and influential record producer, and his trusted assistant, Sasha, a gentle soul who nonetheless struggles with rampaging kleptomania.
So the book`s first chapter starts from Sasha`s perspective, following her on the night when she ruins a promising date with her sticky fingers. The next chapter jumps to Bennie, trying to relate to his preadolescent son and wondering how a one-time rock `n` roll rebel like himself ended up with a set of boring suburban problems. Ensuing chapters pick up points both earlier and later in the lives of Sasha and Bennie, but always through the perspective of others. Some chapters feature not even a passing mention of either.
Despite this unusual format — it sometimes feels more like a short-story collection — Egan, as the book goes along, does a brilliant job of drawing links and connections between her characters and their situations. She`s particularly concerned with the way lives change irrevocably as time passes, how the way people were in their teens and 20s would often be unrecognizable to their later selves. "How did I go from being a rock star to being a fat (expletive) no one cares about?" one character asks.
The way Egan jumps around in time makes some of these observations particularly poignant. At certain points she abandons the present narrative altogether, pausing to sketch out in a few sentences the entire course of a character`s life. In one chapter about an African safari, readers are told in an aside that two characters who have a brief, random encounter will reconnect decades later through Facebook and get married.
A few chapters brush aside storytelling convention completely. One chapter is told as a magazine profile of a celebrity. Another is a Power Point presentation. And just when you`re convinced that none of this should work, Egan again pulls you back in with her keen insight and compassion for her characters.
By the time Egan wraps up her story in about the year 2020 or so, she has uncannily forecast the ways in which e-commerce and social networking threaten to alter the very nature of shared experience. Her startling, apocalyptic take on the near future is all the more chilling for its utter plausibility, and brings the realization that Egan was up to much more here than just trying to reinvent the novel`s format. You`ll want to recommend it to all your Facebook friends.