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.)
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.