Rock and hard places

Fiction Jennifer Egan's intricately observed, sparkingly witty novel A Visit from the Goon Squad, is a bittersweet pleasure, writes Saul Austerlitz

The goon squad is ever-present in Egan's magnificent book, more as a metaphor than reality.
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Jennifer Egan's intricately observed, sparkingly witty novel A Visit from the Goon Squad, is a bittersweet pleasure, writes Saul Austerlitz A Visit from the Goon Squad Jennifer Egan Knopf Dh96 For music fans of a certain stripe, the title of Jennifer Egan's new novel will likely put them in mind of Elvis Costello, and his jittery 1978 gem Goon Squad. Costello's protagonist, a naïve, ignorant young man drafted into complicity in unspecified horrors, is not angry or despondent, just surprised at where he's ended up: "I never thought they'd put me in the/goon squad!" The goon squad is ever-present in Egan's magnificent, melancholy book, more as jittery metaphor than brown-shirted reality. For Costello, it was a reminder of the tortures we inflict on each other, physically and emotionally (this from a man who wanted to call the album containing the song Emotional Fascism); for Egan, the goon squad is time, its assaults silent, its knock on the door unnervingly precise.

Egan, too, has been swiftly, silently mounting an assault on the highest reaches of American fiction, beginning with early works like The Invisible Circus and Look at Me, and her remarkable 2006 novel The Keep. The Keep was a refreshing hybrid of postmodern playfulness and classical storytelling, and Goon Squad maintains its predecessor's experimental daring while dramatically expanding its emotional reach.

Like Tom Rachman's recent The Imperfectionists, Goon Squad is a short-story novel, its discrete sections shuffling the deck between protagonists and supporting characters. A walk-on part in one sequence becomes a lead in the next, but two figures lie at the heart of the book: the record-label mogul Bennie Salazar, and his longtime assistant Sasha. Bennie built his reputation on discovering an iconic rock group, but much contemporary music leaves him cold. Hearing all the digitally enhanced perfection of his artists, he prefers to seek out "muddiness" - the imperfections of recording and performance that serve as traces of a genuine human presence.

The magnetism of the peripatetic teenage beauty Sasha, shambolic and alluring, has seemingly petered out in a dead-end job and a taste for pilfering others' accessories. The brief list of Sasha's stolen objects provided by Egan is a record of a life of pointless transgression: "five sets of keys, fourteen pairs of sunglasses, a child's striped scarf, binoculars, a cheese grater, a pocketknife, twenty-eight bars of soap, and eighty-five pens?"

Other characters find themselves similarly at odds with their inner selves, and their pasts: a celebrity publicist finds herself suggesting cuddly hats as an image makeover for a genocidal dictator; a washed-up rock star plans a farewell Suicide Tour intended to culminate in his death; a sound mixer is wrangled into an impromptu job recruiting "fifty more people like him, who had stopped being themselves without realizing it," to promote an upcoming concert; a teenage girl painstakingly records her brother's obsession with the silent moments in rock songs via PowerPoint presentation. None of them thought they'd ever be on the goon squad, either.

A Visit from the Goon Squad is a novel about music, but it is not an obsessives' paradise in the way, say, Nick Hornby's High Fidelity was. Nearly everyone in the book has a link to the music industry - as musician, producer, suit, or fan - but the music is merely an ornament decorating the stories. Egan is less consumed by the music (though she writes perceptively about it) than the nature of the people drawn to dedicating their lives to it. It is their lives that are their songs.

Bennie and Sasha, along with all the other melodists of Goon Squad, have discovered that the music has stopped without their noticing. The moment of promise - that second when the future beckoned, offering a glimpse of its bottomless bounty - has passed, and they are left with the catastrophic realisation that the shards of the past are all that remains. Egan perpetually ushers us into her stories after the fun has stopped, after the party has permanently broken up and only broken glasses and mounds of debris serve as a reminder that there had ever been anything to celebrate. Sasha, for one, dreams of a change of fortune: "Redemption, transformation - God how she wanted these things. Every day, every minute. Didn't everyone?"

Goon Squad skips forward and backward in time, culminating in a dystopian future partly recognisable as our own Twitter/Facebook-addled present, but the purpose is less to confuse (wait, what year is it now?) than to emphasise the inexorability of aging and loss and failure. Success, or satisfaction, are mere chimeras, their promise lacking the heft of the genuine: "I understood what almost no one else seemed to grasp," a down-on-his-luck former rock star thinks to himself, "that there was only an infinitesimal difference, a difference so small that it barely existed except as a figment of the human imagination, between working in a tall green glass building on Park Avenue and collecting litter in a park. In fact, there may have been no difference at all." The magic of the past has gradually devolved into the heartache and dissatisfaction of the present, and no one knows precisely how or why: "The album's called A to B, right?" another washed-up musician muses. "And that's the question I want to hit straight on: how did I go from being a rock star to being a fat f*** no one cares about?"

A Visit from the Goon Squad is a concept album, a series of variations on a theme structured as a set of interconnected short stories with a recurring cast of characters. The lyrics may change, but the melody never differs. As one character asks another, more rhetorically than from any genuine curiosity: "Time's a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?" Time, in Egan's stories, is a hulking brute, a bouncer manning the velvet rope of happiness and contentment, and keeping everyone - mogul and felon alike - from slipping inside. Satisfaction lasts as long as a killer pop single, or the span of a single happy memory, and no longer.

Egan is the conjurer, the musical magician slipping the bonds of space and time, and the demands of chronology, to create her uniquely bittersweet effects. She is a master manipulator of words, emulating David Mitchell in the reach and scope of her storytelling, Gary Shteyngart's eye for precisely observed social satire, and, in the book's most memorable sequence, the David Foster Wallace-esque ramblings (complete with copious footnotes) of a celebrity journalist named Jules Jones. "The waiter's treatment of Kitty is actually a kind of sandwich," Jules notes in his article-cum-apologia, "with the bottom bread being the bored and slightly effete way he normally acts with customers, the middle being the crazed and abnormal way he feels around this famous nineteen-year-old girl, and the top bread being his attempt to contain and conceal this alien middle layer with some mode of behavior that at least approximates the bottom layer of boredom and effeteness that is his norm." Wallace having ascended to a kind of posthumous literary sainthood, Egan's parody of his style is simultaneously a takedown of the master, and urgent testimony to her own skill as a potential successor to Wallace's erstwhile throne.

Egan's ear is remarkable, and her imitative ability is unparalleled, but Goon Squad is no mere literary exercise. Egan's linguistic gifts are born of her fear that language itself is under threat by the promoters of technologically driven cultural illiteracy. The peculiar language of the messages delivered by the futuristic, iPhone-like "handsets," complete with childish misspellings, is Goon Squad's nightmare vision of a miraculously flexible means of human communication reduced to its brain-dead lowest common denominator.

That PowerPoint presentation, printed sidelong on the book's pages, itself reflects Egan's concern that words have become mere ornaments to technology. "A word-wall is a long haul!" one slide notes, the death of the written word enclosed in a perky iChat thought bubble. Another character, thinking of his wife's academic research, observes, that "English was full of these empty words - 'friend' and 'real' and 'story' and 'change' - words that had been shucked of their meanings and reduced to husks." It is Egan's hope - no, her demand, carried forward on the wings of this heart-wrenching, assiduously observed, nearly perfect novel - that those very words retain their essence.

Heartbreak Craig Raine Atlantic Books Dh77 Craig Raine's debut work is a dysfunctional affair, more a collection of short stories than a traditional novel, broken into 10 fractured episodes as the author examines, as the title suggests, heartbreak and despair, loves and lives less ­ordinary. Raine is a poacher turned gamekeeper, his years as a literary critic and editor finally persuading him, one assumes, to write his first novel. The ­finished product is a slight affair, Raine's characters conduct their business in a disorderly fashion, each page ­broken by an ever-shifting narrative style and an almost obsessive devotion to line breaks, these multiple firewalls shattering every page. His cast of characters is no less complicated or, indeed, desperate: from Olly the work-experience boy at a London publishing company who falls helplessly in love with a colleague with Down's syndrome to the destructive emotional connection forged between Assia, Steff and her father, Cliff the Riff, to Angus the disengaged divorce lawyer stuck, typically, in a loveless marriage. It is a patchy affair, graphic and disengaging in its narrative style. As such, Raine has crafted a work that will thrill and infuriate in almost equal measure. The News Where You Are Catherine O'Flynn Viking Dh76 Frank Allcroft is a Midlands TV presenter, a local hero with such a free-floating sense of duty he finds himself turning up to the funerals of the lost souls who people his news segments. The same weakness made him ­accept the services of Cyril, a superannuated gag writer who supplies Frank's broadcasts with their trademark, painfully corny one-liners. And it leads him into a halting investigation of the death of his predecessor, a personification of artificial showbiz charm, killed in a hit-and-run car accident while jogging himself young. Catherine O'Flynn is shaping up as rather an oddity in British publishing landscape. Both her novels have been the kind of sleepy murder mysteries that might readily adapt into Sunday-night television. At the same time they share an undercurrent of psychogeographical weirdness that places her somewhere in the Ballardian tradition of hyperbolic urban criticism. What Was Lost (2007), in which a lost child eternally patrolled a Birmingham shopping centre, won O'Flynn a Costa. Her new effort, resting more heavily on cosy formula, probably won't repeat the trick, but it's intriguing all the same.