Egan’s Goon Squad mirrors a cracked world
by Rob Neufeld
It’s an example of the best modern writing.
And by modern, I mean cracked.
And by cracked, I mean singing with despair, humor, and empathy; shape-shifting into a Scheherazade of distractions.
The book came out in paperback this year, and it is the subject of Book Discussion X at Accent on Books, Jan. 10.
Laughing all the way to the brink
The side-shows in Egan’s tale are connected, and add up to a spiral of perspectives on social decline, ennobled by assertions of spirit.
First, there’s Sasha, a 30-something woman who needs to steal things to feel good. Then, in Chapter 2, there’s Bennie Salazar, her boss, a big record producer, who bemoans the synthesizing and digitization of music—an “aesthetic holocaust.” He’d been there at the rise of punk rock. And now…
Bennie puts flakes of actual gold into his coffee because he has heard that it increases one’s sex drive. But we leave him in this state to travel back to his punk rock years in Chapter 3, narrated by Rhea, a song-writer for Bennie’s band.
Rhea likes Bennie, who loves Alice, who loves Scotty, who feels safe with Jocelyn, who’s hooked on Lou, an older guy who’d picked her up hitchhiking.
At a party at Alice’s house (she’s rich, not true punk), Rhea and Jocelyn follow Alice up to her bedroom to check out her retired private school uniforms. Rhea sees that “her bed is under a mountain of stuffed animals, which all turn out to be frogs: bright green, light green, Day-Glo green…Her bedside lamp is shaped like a frog, plus her pillow.”
Alice pulls her box of uniforms from her closet. Rhea and Jocelyn promise not to laugh at her. “Ask me if I care,” Alice goes.
Lou enters the group’s life—he’s a record producer, and becomes Bennie’s mentor. He also takes advantage of Jocelyn and introduces cocaine. Very creepy—and yet he has a human side.
He cares about his children—as the next chapter will show. And when, at the band’s gathering in his luxury apartment, Rhea goes out on the balcony, he follows like an uncle, not a predator.
“I’ll never get old,” he says in response to Rhea’s reality check about age differences.
“You’re already old,” she tells him.
He calls her scary, and says he likes it. She says it’s her profusion of freckles that makes her so. He tells her to stay as she is. “The freckles are the best part,” he reassures her. Some guy is going to go ape for them and “kiss them one by one.”
People’s lives are careening everywhere. As the book goes on, the careening intensifies, but so does the pathos and hilarity.
“Time’s a goon,” a has-been rocker says in a later chapter.
Why read this book
First, the storytelling is brilliant. It’s almost as if, as faith and tradition wither away in society, virtuosity flourishes—like a dying tree producing a bumper crop.
One chapter is told by Scotty, the band’s genuinely angry person, years after his performance years, his delusional personality amped up high. He says things like, “There’s a fine line between thinking about somebody and thinking about not thinking about somebody.”
Another chapter involves a black-listed movie starlet and a genocidal foreign dictator.
Yet another is told by a 12-year-old doing a Power Point presentation about her family. Perhaps the most heartbreaking one—although you might vote on this—is told in the second person (“You gave up the one chance God threw your way”); and switches to first person in the last dissolving sentence.
Post-modernism—a fractured, fun-house mirror of cultural references —is very rarely so good. Kevin Brockmeier achieved the highest level, also, with his novel, “The Illumination.”
The main reasons Egan excels are: 1) characters dream, bleed, stumble, laugh, and let us love them; and 2) her theme is fearless.
No faith, new faith
If we, as humans, are losing faith, except for our faith that we’re headed toward disaster; and if we see optimism as fairy tales, with what are we left?
It is the job of literature to answer this question.
What we get in our fiction is much that’s rich with anti-heroes—such as John in Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle” and Yossarian in Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22” and even The Dude in “The Big Lebowski.”
Jules Jones, a character in “Goon Squad,” whose chapter is a loopy, footnoted piece of journalism about his failed interview with a 19-year-old sex goddess, expresses his anguish about the post-9/11 world when he visits his younger sister in her plush home.
“Buildings are missing. You get strip-searched every time you go to someone’s office. Everybody sounds stoned, because they’re e-mailing people the whole time they’re talking to you…And now my rock-and-roll sister and her husband are hanging around with Republicans.”
Are there moral heroes who are activists? Yes there are some—simplistic with guns and fists; and subtle with self-doubts and diplomacy. But, we also need our Jennifer Egans and Mark Twains—authors who put their characters under a microscope and reveal them to be squirming.
The religion of this world view is lovable absurdity. Egan’s squirming is so beautiful, she ultimately morphs her novel into a chapter set in the year 2021, with deliciously painful parody.
A Visit from the Goon Squad (Knopf hardcover, 2010; Anchor trade paper, 2011, 352 pages, $14.95)
Book Discussion X meets to discuss “a Visit from the Goon Squad” by Jennifer Egan at Accent on Books, Accent on Books, 854 Merrimon Ave., 7 p.m., Thurs., Jan,. 10. Call 252-6255.