The Goon Squad Gets Old

Do Jennifer Egan’s tricks still work?

illustration of a book lying open, full of gears and cogs, with a fire starting and smoke
TJ Rinoski

In 2010, Jennifer Egan published A Visit From the Goon Squad. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, suggesting esteem among populists and highbrows alike. Commentators praised its combination of technical virtuosity—the intricate cogs and wheels that connected plotlines across time and geography—and sentimental “heart,” a wistful emotional atmosphere piped in like a gas to keep the mechanism from rusting.

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Racing back and forth in time (between the 1970s and the 2020s), the book found its center in the chastened view from middle age. The chapters took the protagonists from their 40s—when they were already in decline after appearing on the culture’s radar as moguls, musicians, publicists, journalists influential in the recording industry—to their hopeful beginnings in high-school-band rehearsals and college-dorm musings. The effect was to accentuate the melancholic gap between ambition and actuality.

The puzzle-box precision in the ordering of chapters—and the narrative medley, varying past and present tense, first and third and even second person—turned an ordinary generational portrait into a mosaic. Glimpses of the main action through the eyes of minor characters (some deranged, some children) supplied the glue.

The approach called out for thematic justification, and the literary techniques suggested technologies of the moment. Egan’s epigraph was from Proust, but The Goon Squad proposed Google and Facebook as inspiration, and “the wish-fulfillment fantasy these portals offer: What ever happened to … ? ” Meanwhile, at the edges of scenes, surveillance cameras, the internet, post-9/11 national-security paranoia—the invasions of public recording—were at work unsettling the realm of private recording: the intimate pop-music soundtracks of individuals’ lives. The Goon Squad seemed to promise deeper significance because the novel was also reading the news.

Egan bills her new book, The Candy House, as a “sibling novel,” a curious bit of nomenclature. It seems to mean that she trundles out The Goon Squad  ’s methods to try them again. Calling it a sequel is more accurate; at least I can’t imagine rewards to its readers that don’t include renewing acquaintances with old friends. Here, in chapters that span roughly the 2010s to the 2030s, Egan unspools subsequent events in the lives of The Goon Squad  ’s principals—the record executive Bennie Salazar; his mentee, Sasha Blake; and his mentor, Lou Kline (the original three generations)—accoutered with spouses and innumerable unhappy offspring. Egan continues to incorporate each generation’s peer groups from school and work, and now we see the youngest children as adults.

Ratcheting up the technology, The Candy House fully embraces a science-fiction conceit, and implies that some of Egan’s minor Goon Squad characters not only invented social media and seized control of music streaming, but have made good on a new technology, Own Your Unconscious, which uploads the totality of each participant’s memories to the cloud. It includes a Collective Consciousness feature that allows users access to others’ recollections, and some chapters are presented as the product of consulting “gray grabs” from multiple recorded minds—yet they read like ordinary third-person narratives.

Egan makes no use of the further innovations, and Rashomon-style effects, that such a capacity would seem to enable, and that even the simplest sci-fi novel would explore. Surely the experience of entering another person’s consciousness, or multiple consciousnesses separately experiencing the same event, poses questions: Do all thoughts and memories speak the same language? Do you behave differently, knowing that everything you think can be recovered? Not addressed. The invention amounts to a new plot point, not a fictional evolution.

But something big has changed in the characters’ fates. This time, we keep company with a cast of winners, superspies, Special Ops assassins, and world-historical gatekeepers. Gone are the poignant emotional swerves and empathy for sad sacks elicited by The Goon Squad. A journey that had seemed bittersweet, plaintive, familiar yet refreshed by Egan’s singularly convoluted narrative construction—like jazz standards burnished with brilliant arrangements—now sounds depthlessly manic, like sped-up Muzak. It’s as though Egan’s ingenious technique has been streamlined for short attention spans.

Egan’s feat in The Goon Squad was to have worked out a contemporary means of reconstructing slimmed-down, swiftly moving “M.F.A. fiction” to provide jolts of very rare, very special narrative effects, almost exclusively available in very long traditional novels. And she proved she could do this in chapter after chapter, each one sculpted like a crisp short story.

The unique pleasures delivered in long books are unforgettable enough that every reader will likely have his own catalog, and some instances are quite famous. One pleasure arises when a forgotten minor character returns unexpectedly to divert the plot, years after his role seemed at an end. (It happens memorably in different volumes of Balzac’s The Human Comedy, as in The Black Sheep, when the belligerent brother, Philippe, returns to foil the new bully menacing our hero.)

Another occurs when a protagonist absorbs an antagonist’s understanding of an event long after its reality seemed fixed, revising our conception of what has transpired. (So, at the start of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, a young Marcel interprets Gilberte’s indecent gesture in the garden at Tansonville as a rejection; five volumes later, she corrects him, letting him know that her hand signal meant he should join her in sexual games with the other children of the neighborhood.) Still another pleasure is discovering a character’s ironic fate years after a pivotal drama. (Hence, in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the thrill when Prince Andrei, mortally wounded after the Battle of Borodino, is unwittingly lifted onto Natasha’s caravan, hundreds of pages after these characters’ engagement to be married was broken.)

Duration, the sense of having shared in so much eventfulness, seems essential to these transporting experiences of uncanny knowledge. It stands in stark contrast to the most basic effect the novel counts upon: a reader’s fastening onto a narrator, any “I” or restricted point of view, immediately and habitually. Make a character’s perspective ours, and our emotional allegiance is astonishing. Her belief is ours, her shame is ours, her fear, her will. Identification kicks in with even the thinnest characterization.

Using her chronology-scrambling technique in The Goon Squad, Egan demonstrated a shortcut to delivering long-range pleasures, those intense, rare pangs of retrospect and return. She bypassed the kind of unbroken biography of heroes that ordinarily requires many more pages, and instead offered porthole glimpses of her protagonists as seen by peripheral characters.

Each of these observers was given a tic, motif, or symbolic compulsion to distinguish and vivify his or her narration. Those signatures included kleptomania and mild paranoia, a penchant for summarizing the action in anthropological lingo, and family conflict as seen through a child’s PowerPoint presentation. Egan drew on our bottomless reservoir of sympathy for anyone whose perspective we temporarily inhabit, stimulating the same melancholy response, over and over, as she dramatized each minor character’s sorrow at his or her failed understanding, miscommunication, incomplete knowledge of the bigger drama.

The Goon Squad brilliantly hewed to a narrow band of emotions, principally disappointment, regret, shame, and unrequited longing, which were well served by the crosscutting and temporal discontinuity. Nonreciprocal crushes structured the foreground. Rhea wants Bennie, but “Bennie is waiting for Alice, who’s waiting for Scotty, who’s waiting for Jocelyn.” The dynamic recurs a generation later: Sasha trusts Rob, who pines for Drew, who loves Sasha. Behind this, Egan replayed the same primal, sentimental scene of a son or daughter, a wife or lover, unable to gain true or exclusive attention from a “selfish, devouring man,” the father—whether he’s a record-company executive or, in a strange interlude, a genocidal dictator in an unnamed foreign country.

The repetitive formula of brief characterization made all tenses and persons and modes of writing essentially equivalent, producing enjoyable shivers of regret. The chapter rendered as a child’s PowerPoint slides was the celebrated example. Readers marveled that such a skeletal form could still bring them to tears. This seemed a kind of magic—which it was, but less through sorcery than mechanical sleight of hand. The lesson seemed to be that, once the emotional elements were set in place, it really made no difference to us whether the result was written-through.

The upshot was a satisfying dose of sentimentality, in the form of a particular fantasy quest: After all the pain and loss, could modern fathers become faithful and child-centered? The Goon Squad ended in an otherwise mystifying sci-fi vision of apocalyptic reconciliation. In a climate-change-spooked New York City, all music became music for children, who made their desires known through smartphone-like “handsets.” Scotty, the failed rocker of Bennie’s generation, triumphed at last with a children’s concert, and the alpha males of the book made peace with being middle-aged (“You grew up … just like the rest of us”), and were ready to go looking for the women they’d never appreciated, who were not to be found.

The Candy House knows the techniques of The Goon Squad, but doesn’t recognize the limits of their strengths. It is like Samson after a haircut. To make her mode work previously, Egan had to address regret, failure, decline. She needed to feature the piquant memories of losers who, like all of us mortals, grow up to be something less than the heroes our youthful selves imagined we’d be. This time around, her major characters win and win and win. If inspiration or direction eludes them for a bit, most still win again.

The new novel opens with Bix Bouton taking a lonesome walk. When last we saw him in The Goon Squad, he was a graduate student in computer science. He is now in effect a fictional Mark Zuckerberg. His company is called Mandala, not Facebook; he has colonized Manhattan, not Menlo Park; he is loved, not hated. At least the book doesn’t hate him. It apologizes for his creation of an encompassing capitalist social network by making him Black. Online, he was certain, racism would be overcome. (The novel does not revisit this point.) His big achievement behind him, Bix feels lost, wondering whether he can revolutionize the world again.

He puts on a disguise and wanders into an interdisciplinary gathering of academics, including Ted Hollander, last seen in The Goon Squad as a dispirited art-history professor and Sasha’s benevolent uncle. Luckily, academics are full of good ideas, and a “Brazilian animal studies professor” informs Bix that she and her lab colleagues have begun uploading animal consciousnesses to computers. Eureka! The seeds of Own Your Unconscious are planted.

The next chapter focuses on one of Ted’s sons, Alfred. He has a Goon Squad–style obsession (authenticity) and a tic (screaming bloody murder in public, to jolt bystanders out of their phony social roles). Seeking a recovery of the past that will somehow restore him to wholeness, he travels with his girlfriend to visit Jack Stevens, the only authentic, free, what-you-see-is-what-you-get kid he knew in high school. Jack—older, paunchy, divorced—lives in a crappy suburb, drinks beer, looks at the beauty of the sunset, and desperately loves his kids; his true worry is losing custody. Sunsets, children: “Alfred wanted to sit there forever.” The screamer is released from his obsession, finally at home in the world.

These chapters signal the old dynamic. The powerful producer reaches middle age—will he realize that his achievements are hollow? Will the middle generation be freed from its compulsions and resentments, bringing the elders the truth that family, children, and suburban evenings are what matter?

Yet unlike The Goon Squad, The Candy House goes all in on the celebrity fantasia and undermines the ordinariness. Bix isn’t the only old friend who is doing rather well. Sasha, who fled the music industry to become a craft-focused homemaker in the California desert, is now a world-famous land artist. Global collectors beat a path to her door. Mindy, who was getting her Ph.D. in The Goon Squad, discovered the fundamental algorithms that power all social media. Her daughters patented and sold the algorithms to finance their takeover of the music industry as it moved to online streaming. “Most of the music you hear passes through my hands,” one of them tells us, “and I’ve absorbed innumerable companies along the way.”

Even newly met characters in this book soar, becoming rich and famous. We finally encounter Bennie’s mother, whom we had known only as an impoverished single mom of five and an immigrant from Honduras. Now she is a bitcoin success story who “cashed out at the top of the market, netting untold millions.”

The sad sacks of this installment are Ted’s various children, but none is sad for very long. Miles, the eldest, is a top lawyer and yuppie who becomes a drug addict and pauper, then turns his life around and becomes a state senator. Ames, the ignored middle child, takes off for a career as a Special Ops sharpshooter and assassin, then gets to retire to his childhood home and reminisce. What really matters is the walk-off grand slam he hit in a Little League game in the suburbs as a child, and the love of his dad, who kisses his sweaty head. “ ‘What now, slugger?’ he asks. ‘Anything you want.’ ” These are the book’s last lines—touching, I suppose, though a Little League miracle hardly registers as such when The Candy House’s characters bestride the world.

In a novel where almost everyone’s luck has turned good, Egan’s reach for the heartstrings loses its plucking power. To compensate, she introduces satirical diversions that explore technology’s challenge to fiction. First she conscripts Chris Salazar, Bennie’s son and a freshly minted Stanford English grad. The CEO of an “entertainment start-up” has hired him to turn stock elements of movies and TV into algebra. The company’s computers will optimize, rationalize, and monetize the world’s narratives, as Mandala has done for consciousness. Chris’s savior is a “raffish outsider” on a Harley-Davidson, who awakens him to the weirdos, misfits, and junkies outside tech’s “cushy citadel.” Cue Mondrian, Chris’s counter-start-up for freedom, an “invisible army of data defiers.”

The next satire might as well be a product of the entertainment start-up’s narrative-generating software. Lulu, the adorable self-possessed child from The Goon Squad, has grown up to be a Bionic Woman–like “citizen agent.” Her chapter, “Lulu the Spy, 2035,” outdoes Egan’s earlier PowerPoint presentation. It’s composed in epigrams (the book’s promotional copy calls them “tweets”), dictated by our heroine to her mind-reading military brain implant. The mission is straight from Bond films (or Get Smart), as Lulu cozies up to international criminals in their luxurious Mediterranean villas. It’s pulp techno-kitsch of a singularly giddy kind, because her handlers have equipped her with awkward transmitters implanted in every part of her body. (“A button is embedded behind the inside ligament of your right knee … Depress twice to indicate to loved ones that you are well and thinking of them.”)

As this campy futurology takes over, the novel culminates in a fantasy of reconciliation between “stories” and “tech,” played out, naturally, as a father-child drama. As Bix, the tech daddy, lies dying, he makes a secret alliance with Chris, the metaphorical rebel son, and leaves a huge bequest of Mandala wealth to Mondrian. Bix’s real son, Gregory, a stymied novelist, had left the family: “Nothing could change Gregory’s belief that Own Your Unconscious posed an existential threat to fiction.” Now he realizes that, viewed the right way—from a free storytelling mind—online archiving of memory gives a writer more material. Social media and cloud consciousness were really “his father’s parting gift: a galaxy of human lives hurtling toward his curiosity … He was feeling the collective without any machinery at all. And its stories, infinite and particular, would be his to tell.” He’ll finish his novel after all.

Like a new-age George Eliot, Egan steps in to anoint this revelation with an authorial apothegm: “Only Gregory Bouton’s machine—this one, fiction—lets us roam with absolute freedom through the human collective.” I confess this ending stirred the old melancholy in me. You cannot proclaim the novel a winner, in a cardboard contest between tech and tales, while whirring along yourself on stock elements and toothless satires of bad movies. At her best, Egan has been the inventor of algorithms of rich complexity, stimulating core human yearnings through technical devices. Trying them again, but this time to evoke a triumphal register of emotions, she has proved the pertinence of Silicon Valley gospel to her fiction: To keep her audience spellbound, sitting still won’t work. She’ll have to innovate.

This article appears in the April 2022 print edition with the headline “The Goon Squad Gets Old.” When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.