Time passages

Jennifer Egan's fourth novel consists of interlocking stories from the points of view of a dozen of its varied characters. She combines styles — from tragedy to satire to PowerPoint — and jumps forward and backward in time to put us in touch with the awesome and confusing passage of time.

Although Egan is an experimental writer who plays with cultural trends, her storytelling skills keep one reading and caring for each character. She paints realistic scenes that also draw on philosophical questions.

Bennie Salazar, an executive at Sow's Ear Records, listens to music "for muddiness, the sense of actual musicians playing actual instruments in an actual room" and laments that now that quality is "usually an effect of analogue signaling rather than bona fide tape."

That longing for the real — whether in music, relationships or language — runs through the book, as characters' sense of what is real is tempered by how others see them. One character reflects: "I can't tell if she's actually real, or if she's stopped caring if she's real or not. Or is not caring what makes a person real?"

Among the characters is Sasha, who appears first in her mid-30s, telling her therapist about her compulsion to steal. In later chapters she is the child of a violent marriage, a runaway living in Naples, a college student trying to prevent her best friend from attempting suicide for a second time, and, 20 years later, living in the desert with her husband, her daughter and her "slightly autistic" son, who is obsessed with rock songs that have pauses in them.

Sasha is an assistant to Bennie, who in 1979 was involved in the punk rock scene in San Francisco, where his career as a rock and roll promoter took root. His mentor, Lou Kline, is a womanizer who has six kids from various marriages and whose behavior leads to all sorts of problems.

Dolly is a public relations specialist who takes a genocidal dictator as a client because she's desperate to keep her daughter Lulu in a private school. In the process she hires an out-of-work actress whose bold behavior nearly kills her.

Ted, Sasha's uncle, is an art historian in a dead marriage who travels to Naples to find Sasha but spends his time visiting museums.

The novel consistently plays with the theme of seeking the real amid the artificial and having to deal with the effects of the passage of time. Egan captures this metaphorically in a PowerPoint slide by Alison Blake (Sasha's 12-year-old daughter) that quotes Sasha saying: "The pause makes you think the song will end. And then the song isn't really over, so you're relieved. But then the song does actually end, because every song ends, obviously, and THAT. TIME. THE. END. IS. FOR. REAL."

Egan captures well the details of her characters' lives and of our culture, whether it's the rock music scene, a safari in Africa, an interview in a restaurant or a museum in Naples.

But perhaps her most ingenious chapter is the final one, "Pure Language," which imagines a future in which young people have no tattoos or piercings, no ethics, no swearing. Lulu is a "handset employee: paperless, deskless, commuteless, and theoretically omnipresent." Most communication happens through texting, which, Lulu says, is "pure — no philosophy, no metaphors, no judgments." One woman studies "word casings," which are "words that no longer had meaning outside quotation marks." These include "friend" and "real" and "story" and "change."

Then there's the title. A goon is a ruffian hired by racketeers, according to one definition. Scotty, a musician friend of Bennie's, says, "Time's a goon" and, "The goon won."

In that final chapter, set in the future, Alex tries to recall an afternoon he spent with Sasha years before. He listens to the sounds around him in a New York City neighborhood. Behind them is a hum, which he calls "the sound of time passing." This excellent novel traces that sound in a multitude of enlightening and moving ways.


"A Visit From the Goon Squad" by Jennifer Egan (Knopf, 274 pages, $25.95)