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This novel is made up of what at first seem like merely interlocking stories. The underlying theme is music and authenticity, and the way people in modern life cling to music as a way to hold onto what feels genuine. Some stories are set in the early 1980s, some are set in the future. In time, you come to see how the characters are more closely connected that they seemed initially. But each chapter still stands on its own, except maybe for one that's written in PowerPoint (yes!), and that one works a bit better in print. The narrator is fine, nothing special, but the novel really sneaks up on you, and it ends up feeling like it's about everything, in the way really great novels do.
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The title of this book refers to goon squads, which are used to attack and intimidate people. The author uses the title as a metaphor for time, which according to her is as ruthless as a goon squad. Time is a thug that steals your youth, energy, creativity and finally, your life.
This book is playfully structured like a record album but instead of 13 songs we get 13 intertwining short stories narrated by 13 different people. Because of the many narratives, it’s hard to summarize the entire book. Each story is a snapshot from a pivotal moment in a narrator’s life. Each character connects, in some way or another, to other characters in the overall story. The stories are not told in chronological order; they jump to different decades and different cities.
Many of the characters are disturbingly self-destructive; others are predatory and sleazy. The poor choices each character makes at a young age will steer them on sordid trajectories and the resulting repercussions will reverberate long into their lives as adults and old age and into the lives of their children. I realize this sounds extremely depressing but surprisingly, it’s not! In fact, at times, it’s wickedly funny. I attribute this to the clever writing of Jennifer Egan. The humor in the book juxtaposes the debauchery and it makes for a fast, clean read.
Every character in this book struggles with change, time passing and aging. The author accelerates and intensifies that struggle by presenting it in an industry obsessed with youth. The music industry revolves around the culture of youth. More than any other art form, rock n’ roll clings to a “live fast, die young” mentality. Don’t suffer through old age. At one point a washed up record executive’s daughter tells him, “This is the music business. Five years is five HUNDRED years.”
Our time here is short; we all have regrets, all of us. The one thing we all have in common is we are all going to get old eventually. Hopefully we will also grow up before we grow old.
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