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So, Jennifer Egan and Devo.  I wouldn’t have thought I’d be pairing these two together, but sometimes life is like that.

First off is Jennifer Egan’s new book, A Visit from The Goon Squad.  I’ve been a fan of Egan’s fiction for years (and as an aside, she and I were in the same Lamaze class in New York, though I didn’t recognize her at the time), but it was her novel The Keep that turned me into a rabid, ranting enthusiast.  The Keep manages to achieve what would appear impossible – it’s a novel about how narrative suspense functions, drawing attention to all of the gears and levers of craft, and yet manages to be compulsively readable and suspenseful.  There are few examples of post-modern fiction this clever, successful and this entertaining.

I was therefore very eager to pick up A Visit from The Goon Squad, and while it does not offer the same gleeful entertainment as The Keep, it is at least as successful and absorbing.  This time around, Egan seems interested in our various incarnations of self, and explores the theme in a series of temporally disjointed, interconnected stories that center around lifelong music industry figure, Bennie Salazar, as he moves from a teen in San Francisco’s punk scene to, ultimately, his 60s in a future quasi-dystopia driven by connectivity, marketing, and horrific orthography.

While disrupting and disorienting, even while gripping the reader with her compelling and moving pieces, seems to be Egan’s m.o., at the core of the novel is a sense of how we lose, or perhaps how we cast away, previous incarnations of ourselves.  The characters in this novel perpetually, deceive, invent, reinvent, and forget who they are and where they have come from.  Among the most poignant moments of the book are those in which characters in their 40s grapple with all they’ve left behind.  Maybe I found these moments so upsetting because I’m in my 40s, and I prefer not to think about such things. 

Jello Biafra. He once made fun of me.

But the novel isn’t all regret and reflection.  Egan’s tender and sentimental rendering of the 1980s punk scene feels totally authentic (Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys once told me I had crappy taste in music – how’s that for my cred?), and her willingness to explore alternate modes of narrative – one chapter is in the form of a hilarious magazine article, written by a reporter who has assaulted his interview subject; another is an usually affecting PowerPoint slideshow – demonstrate that no matter how she plays around with form, Egan knows precisely what she is doing.  This is another great novel from one of my favorite writers.

Released one week later, Devo’s first album in 20 years shares many of the same interests as Egan’s novel – marketing, toying with traditional forms, and an effort to be entertaining while at the same time picking apart the medium in which that entertainment is delivered.  Now, I was a big fan of Devo from way back when, especially their first two albums, which were clever, edgy and socially astute.  Devo’s cultural message is that humanity is on the decline, and corporate power and marketing forces conspire to make us all into mindless, consuming drones.  Really, it’s hard to argue with something that self-evidently true.

As for this new album, Something for Everybody, I have to admit I was surprisingly entertained.  Thanks, no doubt, to all the ‘80s revival bands around these days, the music struck me as curiously fresh — at the very least, not painfully dated.  I’m not entirely sure I would listen to it beyond the three or so cycles I went through in order to feel justified writing this review.  On the other hand, it’s hard not to want to revisit an album with a song that includes the chorus, “Don’t tase me, bro.”

3 Responses to “”

  1. Hmm. Listening to the live stream as accompaniment to the cats video, I thought they were saying, “Don’t tase me, bro,” also sadly a propos to our times. Anyway, I wouldn’t take criticism from Jello Biafra to heart, considering he’s sort of a down-at-heel Weird Al (who will be at the Sunken Gardens 18 July; “Dare to be Stupid” does Devo better than Devo).

  2. David Liss says:

    It was supposed to be tase. Thanks for catching the typo.

  3. I shall buy her book and read it. Thanks for the review.

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