A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
One At a Time
The thirteen chapters of "A Visit from the Goon Squad" are like lily pads on a pond.
They encapsulate the lives of a group of people, a community, a human ecosystem, over a period of 50 years (only it doesn’t seem like that long).
We start on the pad nearest to us (which is not necessarily the present or the most recent story), then we look around and jump onto the other pads, one at a time, each choice made for us by Jennifer Egan, but not necessarily dictated by any apparent particular order.
She could very easily have chosen a different order. However, in a way, the order doesn’t matter.
What matters is that, by the time we’ve finished, we’ve landed on all of the pads, checked them out, learned something and moved on.
In the process, we’ve accumulated detail, we’ve experienced the whole of the pond, we’ve got to appreciate the whole of the ecosystem.
Now, at our leisure, we can process the detail of our experience.
We can impose order on our experience, if that is what we desire.
It’s About Time
To this extent, "A Visit from the Goon Squad" is a post-modern novel that forces us to reassess our preconceptions about literary narrative and story-telling.
Conventional literature seems to be preoccupied with chronological order.
Temporal order (as opposed to chaos) requires chronology.
We’ve come to expect that a narrative will proceed from the past to the present in chronological order.
If we start in the present, in present tense, we will move to the future chronologically.
Even if we start in the past and the novel is narrated in the past tense, we expect the novel to be chronological from its point of origin.
This creates the illusion that we live the present, and we relive the past, in strictly chronological order.
However, no matter how pervasive the illusion, literature does not actually mimic life when it comes to the sequence or order of perception and experience.
Every person is a combination of the past, the present and the future. Yet we do not follow a linear sequence.
I will never know you and you will never know me in chronological order.
In reality, to the extent that something of our past has been preserved, it is placed on a mental shelf in no particular order. It’s just added to what is already there somewhere, anywhere that it fits, like data on a hard drive.
Fortunately, some faculty in our mind, our memory, can access and recall our past, however incompletely or inaccurately.
One consequence is that, in our social interactions with each other, we don’t necessarily communicate in chronological order.
We reveal our past selectively, and what we select is dictated by relevance, not time.
Even when we are together in the present, we must part company or divert our gaze, until one day (another time) we come back to each other to complete the picture.
Our experiences, our chronology as lived will always be broken, piecemeal, dislocated, even if our minds subsequently and retrospectively impose chronological order on our experiences when we remember them.
Power Poignant Presentation
This is how Jennifer Egan tells her stories.
Her characters are just as broken, dislocated, damaged and real as those of Jonathan Franzen in “The Corrections”.
Her narrative rebels against chronology as she methodically excavates her characters from the site in which they have been buried.
She also uses postmodern techniques like footnotes (a la David Foster Wallace), both self-consciously and humorously.
She supplies us 75 pages of the future in the form of a slide journal prepared by the 12 year old daughter of one of the protagonists.
Despite its juvenile and unadorned prose, it contains some of the most poignant insights into the characters and their environment.
Still, they’re not difficult stories, they’re real stories about real people doing real things.
Arguably, her stories are more real, because of the way she tells them.
They might also be more memorable, not just because we have to make an effort (relative to a chronological exposition), but because we access the past of these characters in the same way we would access and recall our own memories.
There’s a Time and a Place for Everything
Egan uses two separate quotes from Proust as the epigraphs to her novel.
One argues that it is a “most hazardous pilgrimage” to seek the Self that we were in the past in a physical place (e.g., a house or a garden where we used to live during our youth).
He cautions that we will not find the Self there, because this place is no longer in the past, it is in the present and, therefore, the actual place is now different to what we recall.
The place that reflects our Selves in the past can only be in our minds, which is where Proust suggests we look for whatever it is we are seeking.
We have to look inwardly to “find those fixed places, contemporaneous with different years”.
It is we who are the repository of our past, because our minds are the repository of our memories.
In a way, writing about it preserves the memories and therefore it preserves the past.
It protects experiences against the ephemerality of time, even if the characters are fictional.
Memories That Turn Up Just in Time
We think of these memories as records of time and times past.
We exist just in time. Our memories exist just in time.
Yet, it’s arguable that there is no such thing as time.
It’s a product of our minds. It has no mass. It does not move. It creates the illusion that it passes, but its apparent passage can only be measured by changes in something else, the movement of a hand on the face of an analogue watch or the elapse of the numbers on a digital clock. (1)
What actually exists is change, the process of addition to or subtraction from something more material or concrete. (2)
We are like an onion that, with each experience, adds another layer.
Yet, in the case of the mind, each layer eventually merges with the whole.
There are no separate layers that can be peeled one from another.
There is no chronological record of when the memory was created, only the memory itself.
Each memory is a replica of a place, of an experience located or situated within that place.
Collectively, our experiences could be captured and encapsulated and preserved in the amber of our memory (perhaps not eternally, but certainly not immediately dripping ephemeral to the ground and disappearing forever).
If so, we could find Proust’s “fixed places, contemporaneous with different years”, in our minds.
We could slice open the metaphorical onion and spread its component parts across the cutting board.
As with the lily pads, we could explore and inspect each component part in a sequence of our own choosing.
What we would find within ourselves is not time, let alone lost time, but (in the plural) lost times, good times, bad times, preserved experiences.
We would find, not Time, but Experiences.
Time is a Goon
In the words of Bosco, one of Egan’s lesser characters, time is a goon. (It’s not a particularly elegant allusion. Apart from its literal meaning, it seems designed only to reference the Elvis Costello song. (3))
While we are preoccupied with something else, sometimes real life goons, time turns up unexpected and mugs us.
Only then do we realise that we have less time left to us than we thought.
We don’t recognise how precious time is. We take it for granted.
In truth, time is the measure of the rate at which we approach death, the point at which we cease to experience.
Death is inevitable, yet its challenge to us is to fill the time available with experience and experiences.
They in turn constitute our memories and, collectively, our culture.
Giving Time Some Pause
One of the unique pop cultural references in the novel is its list of pauses in songs.
Within the framework of the novel, a pause delays the song’s end and prolongs its life.
By believing that the song has ended, only to find out that there is more to come, we have somehow cheated death, albeit temporarily.
We have eked more out of life than we might otherwise have.
A Memory Dead and Buried in Time
Just as a pause suspends the passage of time, a memory of the past is nothing until it is remembered. It is effectively dead, or at least dormant or hibernating, until it is retrieved.
In the text that immediately follows the first section quoted by Egan, Proust counsels us to dig into our past and explore our memories:
“We will see just how much certain fugitive, fortuitous impressions lead us more successfully towards the past, with a finer precision, a lighter flight, more immaterial, more vertiginous, more infallible, more immortal, than these organic dislocations.”
By digging, we will rescue the past from death and revive it.
We will perpetuate it in the eternity of the present, which is all that we can know and experience.
Recognising the Unknown
Egan’s first quote from Proust concerns the Self.
Her second is more concerned with the lives of Others, our family members, our friends, our community.
Other people will remain a mystery. We can reduce the unknown, but we cannot abolish it.
As readers, we learn a lot about Egan’s characters, but they remain partially unknown to each other.
Sometimes, we wish that they could see what we can see to be obvious, but it is impossible. We have a privileged perspective, a wider gaze.
We might think that technology and social networks will increase the known and decrease the unknown, but we all retain our secrets, some personal mystery, a kernel that cannot be known or understood by others.
This unknown might constitute some element of privacy in our relationships with government and corporations, but it can frustrate communication, understanding and harmony within our peer group.
As long as we do not completely understand each other, there will remain scope for incomprehension, dispute and disharmony.
A Visit from the Goon Squad
Some of Egan’s characters die, some give birth, some do things they would prefer not to remember, some can't forget, some win, some lose, some suffer, some prevail, though in one form or other they all love, they all play.(4)
Meanwhile, the goons of time and death are everpresent in their lives.
Ultimately, however, Egan wants us to realise that it is we, her audience, who are being visited by the goon squad.
They come knocking on our door, too.
No Present Like the Time
They are not to be feared.
Without them, we would not hear Egan reminding us that our minds are a repository filled with memories and experiences, and that we have lived life the fullest who have most filled our minds.
So, ultimately, the message from the Goon Squad, Egan's message (like Proust's), is that we must remember to enjoy life. (5),(6)
(1) We use a second hand to measure what we experience first hand. [Thanks to Jenn(ifer) for reminding me about "Time after Time", from which I conjured up this idea.]
(2) The fundamental things apply as time goes by.
(3) Note the following lyrics: "They want you to come out to play/You'd better say goodbye"; "And you must find the proper place/For everything you see"; "I fit in a little dedication/With one eye on the clock." MJ has also reminded me that the expression "goon squad" also appeared in David Bowie's song, "Fashion".
(4) They play as time goes by.
(5) How nice you remembered.
(6) Or: We must remember, to enjoy life.
POINTS OF VIEW:
1. Found Objects (Sasha 2008)
2. The Gold Cure (Bennie 2008)
3. Ask Me If I Care (Rhea 1979 - 1980)
4. Safari (Charlie 1973)
5. You (Plural) (Jocelyn 1999)
6. X's and O's (Scotty 1997)
7. A to B (Stephanie 2001)
8. Selling the General (Dolly 2001)
9. Forty-Minute Lunch (Jules 1994)
10. Out of Body (Rob Freeman 1992)
11. Goodbye, My Love (Ted 1990)
12. Great Rock and Roll Pauses (Alison 202-)
13. Pure Language (Alex 2016)
Sasha: troubled, pickpocket, relationship with Alex, works for Bennie for 12 years, marries Drew, mother of Alison
Bennie: Indie music entrepreneur, inspired by Lou Kline, father to Chris
Rhea: friend of Jocelyn and Alice
Alice: loves Scotty, loved by Bennie
Jocelyn: has relationship with older Lou Kline
Lou Klein: Music entrepreneur, mentor to Bennie, has relationship with Jocelyn, father to Rolph
Rolph: Lou Klein's son, same age as Rhea, Jocelyn and Alice, dies in 1990
Scotty: guitarist in the Flaming Dildos
Stephanie: Bennie's second wife, works for La Doll/Dolly
Jules: entertainment journalist/writer, Stephanie's older brother, "rapes" Kitty Jackson, goes to jail for five years, writes book about Bosco
Bosco: guitarist in the Conduits, Suicide Tour, subject of Jules' book
Dolly (La Doll): publicist, Lulu's mum, advises General B and Kitty Jackson
Lulu: Bennie's assistant, Dolly's daughter, marries Joe (son of African from safari)
Kitty Jackson: Hollywood actress
Rob Freeman: loved Sasha, friend of Drew's, drowns in East River
Ted: Sasha's uncle
Alex: relationship with Sasha, married to Rebecca, works freelance with Bennie
Drew: friend of Rob's, doctor, Sasha's husband, Alison and Lincoln's dad
Alison: Sasha and Drew's daughter, creates slide journal
Lincoln: Sasha and Drew's son, loves rock and roll pauses
The Lemonheads - "It’s About Time":
The Only Ones - "Another Girl, Another Planet":
Elvis Costello and the Attractions - "Goon Squad" (from the 1979 album "Armed Forces"):
Todd Rundgren - "I Saw the Light" (from the 1973 album "Something/Anything?")"
Todd Rundgren and Daryl Hall - "I Saw the Light" (live duet version from 2011):
Yo La Tengo - "I Saw The Light" (Live):
Cyndi Lauper - "Time After Time":
Miles Davis - "Time after Time":
New Order - "This Time Of Night":
Gorillaz vs Crystal Castles - "Good Time":
The Guess Who - "No Time" (Extended Version):
Frank Sinatra vs Casablanca - "As Time Goes By":
Casablanca - "As Time Goes By" - Original Song by Sam (Dooley Wilson):
IMDb: "During the piano sequences with Dooley Wilson in "Casablanca", Elliot Carpenter played the piano just offscreen, while Dooley fingered the keyboard on camera."
Play it once, Sam. Play it, Sam. Play "As Time Goes By":
Damien Rice - "The Blower´s Daughter":
Glen Campbell - "By the Time I Get to Phoenix":
Nick Cave - "By the Time I Get to Phoenix":
The Seekers - "Time and Again":
Pink Floyd - "Comfortably Numb":
Pink Floyd - "Time":
"The time is gone, the song is over,
Thought I'd something more to say."
David Bowie - "Fashion" (from the 1980 album "Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)"):
"We are the goon squad and we're coming to town, beep-beep."
SOUNDTRACK (OH, GOD GIVE ME PAUSE):
BBC Interview with Jennifer Egan:
"Clearmountain pauses" and "violations of expectation"
Jennifer Egan on the best pauses in rock music:
Great Rock and Roll Pauses:
13 songs with videos on the book's website
The Strokes - "Hard to Explain"
Great pause at 2:06.
The Four Tops - "Bernadette":
Short pause at 2:38.
"Once Egan had learned a little more about the function that pauses can serve in songs, she "fell in love with Closing Time all over again," she said. But her all time favourite rock and roll pause? "The song Bernadette by The Four Tops," she said. "I feel like it's one of the original pauses. The name 'Bernadette' just comes roaring back after the pause, and it's so dramatic. In a way I feel like it created a template for the way pauses are used in rock songs. If you talk about pauses in songs, that's one that comes up a lot."
Semisonic - "Closing Time":
Great pause at [can someone find it for me?].
Egan's book was inspired by a pause in one song in particular: Closing Time by Semisonic. "The drummer from Semisonic, Jacob Slichter, wrote a fabulous book called So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star, and he talks in detail about the recording of the song," Egan said. "And the producer was a guy named Bob Clearmountain who is known for inserting pauses into songs for dramatic effect."
Clearmountain is so well known for this practice that the songs he's worked on are said to have "Clearmountain pauses."
"This idea lodged in my brain and I couldn't get rid of it," Egan said. "When I found myself working on a chapter in PowerPoint, it very quickly came to me that this was where I would end up using the pauses in the songs, but it wasn't until later that I realized that the reason for that was that PowerPoint itself is a form structured around moments separated by pauses."
Eels - "Novocaine For The Soul":
Fuckin' long pause at 1:29.
Matthew Sweet - "Girlfriend"
If they're not strictly pauses, I'll call it syncopation.
See 0:33, 1:08, 1:44, etc.
Some bloody brilliant guitar from Robert Quine, R.I.P.
Robert's father, Willard Van Orman Quine, a philosopher and logician, wrote a memoir called "The Time of My Life".
Robert's second cousin once removed is/was Dan Auerbach from The Black Keys.
Matthew Sweet - "Divine Intervention":
Fuckin' long fake fade-out at 4:38.
The Stone Roses - "I am the Resurrection":
Great pause at 5:23 followed by a fab rave outro.
Plus I love this band and I wear one of their T-shirts all the time (when I'm not wearing The Soundtrack of Our Lives). So there.
David Bowie - "Young Americans":
Possible short pause at 4:19. The book says it needs to be longer. I agree.
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