Jennifer Egan's book A Visit from the Goon Squad was all over must-read lists last year. I am usually so behind in my never-ending quest Someday!"
A Visit from the Goon Squad uses the music business as a metaphor for modern society, telling stories of loss, betrayal, love, and family through a series of vignettes from the perspective of different characters. They are all connected in some way to each other, and to the music industry in Los Angeles. The novel goes back and forth through time, jumping from decade to decade, highlighting all of the modern pressures that people feel to fit in, be connected, create meaning in life.
Not only is the non-linear structure of the narrative unique, but each vignette has a distinct personality, a different way of storytelling from the others. Time and again, the characters show that despite all striving to the contrary, most of them (us) are never able to live up to the image of themselves that they have created in their own minds. Often, the things that the characters do to try and make-up for their previous shortcomings make things worse instead of better, and there are plenty of unintended consequences throughout the book. Egan spends most of the book demonstrating how difficult it can be to have truly authentic relationships in the modern world in which we live, where it is theoretically possible to stay connected with everyone all the time through social media, but where in reality most people are living shallow public lives, keeping most of their deepest selves hidden.
The last part of the book describes a future New York where infants and toddlers drive consumer tendencies through the use of social media, and where trends are determined artificially through people whose job it is to promote brands they may have no real experience with or knowledge of. This topic, the false reality of social media and the lack of privacy in the digital age, is reflected in others books gaining popularity recently, most notably Dave Egger's The Circle (review coming soon!). I hesitate to say that what it means to be human is changing so drastically that humanity itself may be high unrecognizable in the next 50 years, but I do hope that gifted writers such as Egan continue to raise questions about how our relationships to each other and to the world in general will change when all of human knowledge is available with a few keystrokes, and whether the seemingly endless ways we now have to connect with other people really deepens our connections to each other and our own best selves.