A Visit from the Goon Squad

The phrase "time is a goon" is uttered twice in this audacious, surprisingly affecting novel-in-pieces - first by an ageing rock star, and again, years later, by a manager trying to persuade another errant, decrepit star on to a stage. All these people are connected by mysterious, gradually revealed links, and it seems it is Jennifer Egan's project to undo the dumb thuggery of time, or at least to find and log what might be expected to be lost through the attritions of the years.

The technique she employs is to create a car­ousel of stories concerning a group of friends, colleagues and lovers in New York and San Francisco over a period of decades. Each story picks up on some incident or glitch in a predecessor, so that over time the most random of early incidents is made to ring with significance. The trick is scarcely new: in the past few years both Melissa Bank and Amy Bloom have made use of it in their collaged maps of modern American lives. What elevates Egan's work is the quality of her writing and the focused energy of her formal experiments.

The central figures are first to take the stage: Bennie, the neurotic president of the Sow's Ear record label, and Sasha, his beautiful, kleptomaniac personal assistant. Everyone else is related to one of these two, though sometimes by only the slenderest of threads. For example, the peripheral character Lulu, the precocious daughter of La Doll, Bennie's ex-wife's former boss, is first seen as a child, watching in horror as a starlet is beaten and abducted by the general of an unnamed country for whom her mother is acting as a PR.

Later, in the futuristic story with which the volume closes, Lulu reappears as a young adult now working for Bennie. In one of the virtuosic, proleptic leaps at which Egan excels, it is revealed in a quick aside that Lulu will marry an African engineer, alluded to in a much earlier story as the future grandson of a tribal chief seen dancing as a young man by the sulky adolescent daughter of Lou, Bennie's one-time mentor, a sequence that ends: "He and Lulu will buy a loft in Tribeca, where his grandfather's hunting dagger will be displayed inside a cube of Plexiglas, directly under a skylight."

Before Facebook, these sorts of links were rarely visible in real life, and even in our digitally connected age they still have the power to evoke the same half-disturbing gasps of pleasure Egan elicits here. Too much of such things would be glib, however, and it is significant that this mode of clairvoyance is not accessible to the characters, who blunder on, preoccupied and baffled, without ever quite realising the marvellous patterning of their lives.

The lunges into the future add an uncanny thrill, but it is the apparently inconsequential minutiae of the everyday that make the stories so consoling. Sasha steals things she never uses: pens, keys, binoculars, a child's scarf, heaped in a pile "like the work of a miniaturist beaver: a heap of objects that was illegible yet clearly not random". Meanwhile, Bennie compiles a list of all the incidents that have caused him shame, among them inadvertently kissing a nun and being caught defecating by a girl on whom he had a crush

Though the earlier chapters dart back and forth in time, telling of suicides and deaths by drowning as well as more ordinary holidays and outings, the final two are both located in the future, and take the most substantial structural risks. The first, "Great Rock and Roll Pauses", is in the form of what seems to be a PowerPoint presentation by a 12-year-old girl. It looks clumsy on the page, but viewed in the context of all that has preceded, it proves disarmingly moving. The second is a foray into a future where toddlers are the major music-buying demographic and people sitting face to face communicate by text because verbal conversation is too emotionally draining.

This future world is so technologically literate that connection as we understand it appears at first impoverished. But once again the goon of time proves no match for Egan's dexterity.

It seems a mark of her faith in humanity that she can close this profoundly satisfying book with a blast of textese - "th blu nyt/th stRs u cant c/th hum tht nevr gOs awy" - and make it not only intelligible, but almost painfully resonant with meaning. l

A Visit from the Goon Squad
Jennifer Egan
Corsair, 352pp, £14.99

Olivia Laing's "To the River: a Journey Beneath the Surface" will be published next month (Canongate, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, GOD Special