#egansquad reading notes; chapters 1 to 4

Notes taken while reading A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, which a bunch of us are gang-reading and chatting about on Twitter under the #egansquad hashtag. Decided to dump these here because I’m struggling to cram all my thoughts into 140-character bites; discussion of points will probably be more Twitter-based, but this seems to me to be an acceptable shortcut. (Plus I wanted to archive these somewhere accessible and public, becasue Goon Squad already strikes me as being an important book, even if it only turns out to be so in the context of my own reading. Selah.)

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A

1 – Found Objects

Sasha searching for a meaning to everything, searching for something real, an authenticity she can’t really describe or even recognise until it’s there, momentarily; a transient thing, satisfaction, a fleeting emotional twinge in a wasteland of… ennui? Self-loathing?

Sense of place (and entrapment/embeddedness within such) is very powerful; that feeling of a belonging that isn’t entirely born of pleasure or meaning but inertia, a function of time. That description of the apartment accreting around her over time, like the pile of purloined bits, contextless objects stolen, made into a little heap, its meaning emergent and transient. Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold… so plug the vortex, throw in enough junk and the dam might just clog. But what is flowing away? Is there anything left to save? My old flat in Southsea felt like that, before I left.

Wild chopping of timelines, but very neatly handled; if Egan maintains this level of prestidigitation all through, this will be a fun – if brainshaking – ride.

Is there a microcosmic metaphor of the whole text going on here, maybe? I’ve heard much about how Goon Squad is a po-mo collage of styles and forms and media; is the pile of stolen items the book, Sasha the author? A Jungian reading, perhaps, but it’s very tempting, even at this early stage. The briefness of satisfaction in Sasha’s thefts is poignant – far more so than the obvious yet deft pinpointing of the story in post-9/11 New York. But how far post-9/11? Does everyone feel that absence as strongly still, or is Sasha the type to cling to the hollow pain of loss?

2 – The Gold Cure

A record exec drinking flaked gold in coffee in hope of restoring his lost sex drive; no escaping that metaphor, is there? But Bennie at least remembers a time when music still mattered to him, even though he blames the digital tsunami for killing it. So he’s in therapy too (hey, this is the fictional New York, everyone’s got to be in therapy, right?), and he’s got a hole in his soul to fill, too, just like Sasha. (But again, haven’t we all? Or is that just me?)

Navel-gazing aside, the sense of the centre and the certainties having dropped out of pretty much everything is front and centre; Bennie’s plainly adrift in a world that no longer plays by the rules he learned, and is trying his best not to blame the world for that.

“… seemed to be a fashion choice, not a costume.” Doesn’t grok that there’s no real difference that matters any more.

Ah, yes; pre-digital authenticity is the only thing Bennie has a hard-on for. But the poor guy’s totally adrift on a sea of fragmentary failures and disgraces, and the things he achieved are lurking beneath the water, Atlantean, seen most clearly in the misted memory of myth. Plenty of pathos sloshing around here… but from Bennie’s POV Sasha seems calm, composed. This is earlier than chapter one, then.

Ah, and as if on cue, here are the hints of Sasha’s developing kleptomania.

“The flakes would look the same in five years as they did now.” Again, a lust for a lost permanence. (Also could be read as a more vague metaphor for the lingering trust we have in gold, even though it doesn’t mean a whole lot in fiat currency terms any more.) Even Sasha “stopped being a girl while he wasn’t looking”. Divorced, estranged from his son, throwing money away on a quack cure, still on the sex-and-drugs rock’n’nroll roundabout long past the point where it stopped being any fun.

3 – Ask Me If I Care

First-person narrator, present tense; still some of the temporal flickering of the previous chapters, but there’s more of a coherent start, middle and end – length may help, too, but this really feels like a standalone story, and a damned fine one at that. Narrator Rhea self-effacing and insecure to the nth degree; we’re almost two thirds through before we even find out her name, and she talks about herself largely in terms of other people; diminished ego, and like the other characters so far defines herself by what she feels she lacks.

1979 or thereabouts, the culturewave of punk flooding out across the States after its initial explosion. A very believable and wrenching tale of outsider teenage confusions and passions, of innocence traded for entry to the palace of adulthood (which turns out to be the same place you were before, but with more confusing bits. But again, it’s people searching for things that they think will fix their sorrows, complete them: success, a record deal, a hot boy, a loss of freckles.

“I can’t tell if she’s actually real, or if she’s stopped caring if she’s real or not. Or is not caring what makes a person real?”

4 — Safari
i – Grass

Lou and his disaffected first-marriage kids on the afore-mentioned safari. Charlie (possible irnoic nod to father’s drug of choice?) on cusp of adolescence, just learning the bittersweet taste of rebellion against her parents. Temporal leaping again (a forward digression on the drum-playing warrior’s family-to-come), and within that a physical leap (back to NY… everything in this book seems to gravitate toward NY one way or the other, like it’s the cultural singularity point, or at least the event horizon).

Lou’s son Rolph emerging as some sort of totem of authenticity, of the empathy and centredness that all the other characters seem to lack and long for… Lou only recognises this subconsiously, even as he tries to shape R to be more like him.

Another temporal oddity: “He thinks, I’ll remember this night for the rest of my life. And he’s right.” Omniscient narration? Rolph looking backwards? (No, can’t be, because we’re getting insights into other minds; omniscient is horribly hard to do right, let alone well, but Egan seems to nhave the knack of it.)

ii – Hills

Anthrolopologist character deployed as anthropological lens thru which to observe the power dynamics of the group…

Pre-digital – proof of animal sightings must wait on development of analog film. (Also, Chronos as name of bassplayer; another nod to time as construct/creation?)

Weird feeling to this chapter, like some sort of documentary with a sotto voce commentary from the almighty. Another deep leap into the hypermediated Now (which is here an almost unknowable future); a reminder that the new ability to reconnect to one’s past doesn’t bring the sense of connection to authenticity (the incredible clash of Chronos and lion, an unkillable story) that its Skinner box set-up suggests it will.

Subtle and not-so-subtle paralleling between lion pride dynamics and the anthropology of the group dynamics around Lou. What’s interesting is that Lou seems to be the one character whose head we almost never get inside…

iii – Sand

Rolph won’t spear the fish. “I just like watching them.” After the aside that Lou resents Rolph’s mother’s (passive/pacifistic) influence over him… he wants R to be more of a lion. And in a way he is, in that he recognises and despises the alpha-maleness of his father and his desire for symbolic wins over lasting satisfaction… while Charlie is easily deceived by the surface of things, and – so we are told – will go on to suffer from such. More temporal pinball… does this signal the end of the chapter on its way?

“But we’re getting off the subject.” Authorial intrusion getting less and less subtle; the omniscient narrator is becoming a character in his/her/its own right.

OMFG SPOILERS

In response to viewer and listener feedback received during the recently-finished football season, the BBC has decided that pundits and newscasters on all BBC media properties will be forbidden from mentioning specific details of league matches until it has been determined that everyone interested in watching or listening to the live commentary has had a chance to do so.

Barraged by complaints from viewers stuck at work or with family while crucial matches were broadcast, the Director General felt obliged to respond and address the issue. “Obviously, it’s been unfair of us to discuss major events and turnarounds in football matches – final score, goalscorers, red cards and the like – when there are still loyal fans who’ve yet to watch or listen to the game via timeshifted media. Why should they be denied the chance to enjoy our football-related programming just because there’s a chance the element of surprise might be removed from their enjoyment of their home team’s performance?”

Asked how the BBC intended to deal with the possibility of other media outlets leaking the same details while some fans remained unfulfilled, the Director General replied: “We’re planning to set up a dialogue with other venues to establish a sort of universal code of practice. It is to be hoped that rogue venues will not breach the code and race to broadcast the full detail of a match in their discussion of it; it would be very callous of them not to consider the possibility of a fan accidentally clicking through to a discussion of a game they had yet to watch. After all, it’s not the fan’s responsibility to avoid every venue where discussion might occur; that onus lies clearly on the media and the punditry, and it’s to the shame of this industry that we’ve let this run unchecked for so long.”

Faced with the suggestion that such a code of conduct would be unpolicable and tantamount to a form of censorship, the Director General asserted that it is clearly the duty of the media to forestall discussion until a point where everyone can participate in it equally. “It’s just the right thing to do, isn’t it? After all, if we told them they’d be better off avoiding football-related media until they’ve had a chance to catch up, we’d be being monstrously unfair to that minority of people. They should be able to read, listen to or watch whatever they want without fear of finding out something they’d rather not know yet, and we have to consider that desire – born as it is of a form of deferred gratification – to be more important than the inconsiderate lust for discussion of everyone else. That lust has led to pundits taking an almost sadistic glee in discussing the particulars of certain matches, especially the most important or contentious ones, and – to be frank – the sooner we quash this unpleasant thread of elitism, the better off everyone will be.”

When pressed, the DG suggested that the same protocols will eventually be rolled out into all sports programming, and finally all news content in general. But wouldn’t this mean that eventually the BBC would be completely unable to discuss anything that had happened at all, ever? “We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it, I suppose,” responded the Director General. “But I’m positive that those to whom we extend the privilege of forestalling the discussion will be grateful for not having to think about what they read or watch, and that is reward enough for everyone, I’d have thought.”

For more background on this story, click here. Unless you’re worried that clicking there might reveal an important component of the events in question that will spoil your enjoyment of the discussion as a whole, of course; after all, you shouldn’t have to make that judgement call yourself.

bin Laden

Well, I wasn’t expecting that. And with the exception of a very few people, nor was anyone else.

To be honest, I suspected Osama bin Laden was already either dead or decommissioned some time ago; given the increasing irrelevance of al Qaida anywhere other than the headline-generation meetings of right-wing Western media houses and political parties, it was an easy mistake to make. Whether we’ll find ourselves wishing he’d just faded away into obscurity with the passage of time remains to be seen… but we can say with certainty that he’s now achieved a sort of immortality, albeit not the one promised to mujahadiin who lose their lives in the course of a holy war.

Whosoever decided that burying the guy at sea without releasing some sort of concrete proof to the media that they got the right guy deserves a hearty slapping, however, for handing conspiracy theorists the world over a shiny new toy to play with. To clarify: I’m pretty positive that the Yanks have bagged the real bear (because claiming falsely to have done so would have been so easily disproved by a YouTube video starring one bearded nutbag and a copy of that morning’s newspaper that even Dubya wouldn’t have attempted it, though I bet he’d have liked to), and I know how Occam’s Razor works. But so does any politician or high-level covert ops planning team, I’d wager, and they also know that Josephine Average is a sucker for projecting patterns into the spaces between data-points. A few stills or seconds of video would have gone a long way to quelling some of the kneejerk questioning that’s currently ricocheting around the internetosphere; as ghoulish as it was, the “leaked” footage of an addled and burned-out looking Saddam Hussein left little doubt that they’d strung up the real McCoy. (The question of whether hanging Saddam or shooting bin Laden is the morally right thing to do is a debate for another time, but suffice to say I’m not sure it is. Democracy and the rule of law must be universally applied, no matter how repugnant or obviously guilty the accused may be, or the very concept of democracy is undermined. There’s been a lot of that in the past ten years, too.)

Repetition for the easily excited: I’m as convinced as I can be that they got their man, but I’m not surprised a lot of folk are demanding more substantive proofs of such. (Postmodernism isn’t a creed or philosophy, it’s a ubiquitous and unavoidable cultural condition; we are all hostile to metanarratives that make us feel uncomfortable and/or confused, and the notion that “[any] government [other than {my preferred government}] can be trusted” was an early casualty in all but the most easily swayed.)

It’s no mark of particular intelligence or insight on my part to say that bin Laden’s death has in no way “made the world a safer place” (in the short term, quite the opposite), ended the threat of Islamic terrorism (or any other sort), secured world peace, prevented cruelty to kittens or located Elvis. Much as the methodology jars with my own pacifism, I’m not sad to hear bin Laden is dead; he was without a doubt a very nasty shit indeed, guilty of orchestrating terrible atrocities, and I recognise the need for closure in the US; the psychic wound of 9/11 has festered for a long time, after all, and little less than a trophy head was going to stand a chance of resolving that lesion. But looking at footage of folk around the White House chanting and celebrating what – based on the effort, expense, timescale and collateral damage involved – is a deeply Pyrrhic victory, I’m put in mind of the revulsion we all felt when we saw bin Laden’s supporters doing exactly that on a certain September 12th, nearly ten years ago. As is often the case (in my universe at least), old Friedrich has wise words for the Zeitgeist:

Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.

Probably worth mentioning that “an eye for an eye” is a tenet of Islamic law, also. The United States in particular – but by no means exclusively – has had a decade of gazing into the abyss. It’s time to step back from that ledge.