The Internet makes periodic, seemingly innocuous appearances throughout Jennifer Egan’s new novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad. In the first chapter, a character considers Googling her psychiatrist. Later, members of an African safari reconnect on Facebook, and a character’s 9-year-old daughter spends much of her time “in a pink beanbag chair, doing homework on her laptop and IMing her friends.” But it is not until the final chapter, titled “Pure Language,” that it becomes apparent that Egan is using online communication and social networks to explore the way the Internet makes traditional narrative struc-tures feel obsolete.
A Visit From the Goon Squad is not the first novel to be arranged as a collection of only tangentially related stories, but it does feel like the first novel to be structured like a Facebook page. You start at one character’s “wall,” or chapter. Moving on to the next chapter is much like clicking over to the wall of one of that character’s friends—the protagonist from the previous chapter becomes a minor character, and the friend becomes the protagonist, much in the way that everyone on Facebook is both the protagonist of their own walls and minor, sometimes unseen characters on their friends’ walls. Because there is no “main character,” no organizing perspective or single narratorial point of view, A Visit From the Goon Squad mimics the narcissism and fragmentation of social -networks.
The book spans several decades, from the late 1970s to sometime in the near, unspecified future. Over its course we get to see a good chunk of the lives of several characters. Bennie Salazar first makes a one-sentence appearance as the music-producer boss of Sasha, the kleptomaniacal protagonist of the first chapter. Later in the book (but earlier in time) he is the teenage, bass-playing bandmate of Scotty, and later still the philandering husband of Stephanie, whose brother, Jules, an unstable celebrity journalist, attacks the starlet Kitty Jackson, who later takes part in a publicist’s plot to rehabilitate the image of a despotic general responsible for a genocide. Bennie will reappear in the final chapter, after several reversals of personal fortunes, to produce an outdoor concert in a vaguely post-apocalyptic downtown Manhattan.
If this all sounds like a literary version of “six degrees of Kevin Bacon,” it is. Yet for all its postmodern flourishes (one chapter is told entirely in flow charts), Goon Squad is as traditional as a Dickens novel. In previous books Look at Me and The Keep, Egan worked similar themes of privacy and the commercialization of “real” life. Her aim is not so much to explode traditional storytelling as to explore how it responds to the pressures and opportunities of the digital age. Egan herself does not appear to be on Facebook, but A Visit From the Goon Squad will likely make her many new friends.