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Everything changes, time burns out or fades away, and finally, as German novelist Robert Musil had it, "one has no way of knowing whether the world has really grown worse, or oneself merely older." For the characters in Jennifer Egan's "A Visit From the Goon Squad," her follow-up to the neo-Gothic bestseller "The Keep," it's a bit of both. These people, many of them in the music or publicity rackets, are sellouts, burnouts or washouts -- self-estranged at best, suicidal at worst. A few will find something approaching happiness, but in a dystopian near-future.
The novel, which could also be read as a set of linked stories, is arranged like a paper-clip necklace or a six-degrees-of-separation chart. The first chapter is told from the vantage point of Sasha, a kleptomaniac freelancer who once worked for Bennie, the record-exec protagonist of Chapter 2, which finds him sprinkling gold flakes in his coffee as a long-shot cure for impotence. This impotence isn't exclusively sexual; Bennie's lost his ear too, or betrayed it. But he can still enjoy the punk of his Mohawked youth, when he was the love object of Rhea, who narrates the third chapter. And so on.
These characters will return in subsequent, time-jumping, globe-trotting chapters as major or minor players (or as extras, something like the man in the mackintosh in Joyce's "Ulysses"), but we won't revisit their consciousness or narration. The effect over 13 chapters is that of a collage, choral work or puzzle, reminiscent of Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying," or Robert Altman's ensemble films.
The form lets Egan play with many styles and moods, here dour, there satirical. Almost always she gets the voices right and matches the prose to the milieu. A chapter treating early '90s collegiate life uses the then-trendy second-person present tense. Another is a piece of unhinged gonzo journalism that serves both as a tribute to and a parody of the late David Foster Wallace. Still another is a PowerPoint presentation, prepared by a precocious 12-year-old, that's both an essay on pauses in rock records and a moving domestic vignette.
It's a winning, adventuresome whole but with some underperforming parts. There are too many reveries in which characters recount overfamiliar sorrows. And with such a variety of people, eras and settings Egan edges toward shorthand: The punk club is wild and debauched in the way we'd expect, the ritzy suburb bigoted and antiseptic in another unsurprising way.
These complaints come infrequently, however, and recede with the accretion of the book's themes -- the biggest one being no less than time itself. Some of these characters are in midlife, yes, but the crisis Egan's looking at is permanent, the one we're always in the middle of, at least till time -- "a goon," says one of the book's creaky rockers -- cues our exit. It's a bleak book, but also wise, witty and inventive.
Dylan Hicks is a Minneapolis writer and musician.