For years critics have struggled to capture the overall idealism of the American 21st century society in a mere coined phrase. Most often these endeavors are in vain, with these critics attempting to conveniently summarize the chaotic, contradictory, and incredibly intricate expanse of an entire generation in a few decorative terms: the soul-tuned philosophers of the early 19th century became the Transcendentalists, the confused artists of the post-World War two generation became The Lost Generation, and the wandering idealists of the 1950s became The Beats, but to this day there exists no title that can fairly describe the immense assortment of aspects that inherent to our current societal genetic makeup. However, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad brilliantly captures the essence of the post-punk, digital generation by offering an array of character portraits that all coalesce into a perceptive view of the distinct aspects that atone for the 21st century. The novel, based primarily on characters involved in the music business in some fashion or another, only incorporates music to highlight the unfathomable rate at which the world has transformed over time. Her language, which often fluctuates between literary styles and narrative, only augments this idea throughout the novel. Egan allows the tumultuous events of the characters’ lives unfold while abstaining from deliberate attempts to expound and wax poetic on their greater significance within American. By the novel’s conclusion, we are closer to and simultaneously further from discovering the true impetus behind America’s pulse.
One of the most brilliantly executed chapters of the novel is the chapter “Great Rock and Roll Pauses.” The chapter, which acts as an almost consummate representation of postmodernism, is presented in a slide show rather than a traditional narrative. The pervasive theme of the chapter is a rarely mentioned phenomenon, the power of blank space in music. Many musicians, such as Keith Richards, the greatly revered lead guitarist for The Rolling Stones, have spoken at length about the almost tantalizing effect a brief period of quiet can have on a listener. On the surface, the idea seems flawed and contradictory, as most people will agree that music, even in the most experimental or minimalist forms, is a sequence of sounds. However, blank space provides much more than aesthetic value for the characters, and subsequently Egan’s larger point as well. As the novel progresses, the strains that ground the characters in the music industry increasingly fades, and music almost becomes a sort of minor backdrop for their hectic lives. Sometimes we see characters in their adolescent stages, often times extremely idealistic and uninhibited by the demands of society, but most of all intense music connoisseurs. Music is the singular thread that, and within the subtle details of Egan’s narrative the reader can rightfully surmise that these characters believe their lives will always be dominated by it. For instance, the tangible dramatics of Scotty’s personal life are lightly included, and the disparity between tragedy and the importance of music is almost disturbingly monumental. However, we eventually see these naïve notions fade as the characters age before our eyes, and are introduced into the banality of everyday adult situations. In these chapters, music is clearly an afterthought if mentioned at all.
However, blank space is often an unwelcome phenomenon. In the chapter “The Gold Cure,” we learn about Bennie Salazaar during a latter stage of his life. The prestige and glow that attaches itself to the others’ portrayal of him does not seem to stack up. We learn that Bennie has become sexually impotent, and is using a greatly expensive remedy of consuming gold flakes. This chapter is one of the strongest in terms of symbolism in the novel. For instance, the mere title is deliberately ludicrous, suggesting that there exists no sort of gold cure for anything. But it captures the heartbeat of 21st American society which thrives on capitalism and materialism in order to numb the pain of their lives. Additionally, Bennie’s sexual impotence is a great metaphor to the joie de vivre that he has been completely depleted of during his many years as a music executive. When Bennie is listening to the Stop/Go singers perform, he drifts into a state of ecstasy marked by an endless stream of tantalizing emotions similar to the poetic styles of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: “Then the sisters began to sing. Oh, the raw, almost threadbare sound of their voices mixed with the clash of instruments— these sensations met with a faculty deeper in Bennie than judgment or even pleasure; they communed directly with his body” (30). Bennie’s reverie is so strong that it causes him to lose sight of reality, and phenomenon that occurs frequently in the novel. He is so desperate for the awakening of his soul that he disregards the fact that the music he is hearing isn’t very good, which is made clear by Sasha once they return to their car. Once in the car, the concept of blank space really assumes it’s role within the novel as Sasha reflects on the ground zero site in New York City. “There should be something, you know? Like an echo. Like an outline” (36). These cryptic lines point at one of the novel’s underlying themes: the passage of time and the rapidity at which it transforms in that time. Both characters look to the past nostalgically and wonder how they found themselves in such an unfamiliar world to the one they had populated in their days of youth. Sasha’s words metaphorically summarize many of the characters’ thoughts in the novel. Because these characters were forced to sacrifice their youthful uninhibited ways in order to assimilate and survive in the corporate or adult world, they sometimes look back nostalgically on the days when they naively thought that they contained the wisdom of how to stay young forever.
Although each of the chapters in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad stands on its own, the tenth chapter, “Out of Body,” is a marked difference from the previous chapters. Immediately the reader is introduced to the 2nd person narrative, a literary technique that is notorious for providing a jarring and virtually uncomfortable read, but here it works as an intentional and effective device used by Egan, mimicking the uncomfortable feeling one often gets when listening to Punk rock music. However, the 2nd person narrative illuminates much more, and goes far beyond the music itself. Although we get no direct references to time in the chapter, Egan skillfully sets the scene by including staples of the 1990s by including references about Bill Clinton and Nirvana, two figures that in the chaotic aspects of their lives, represent the chaotic nature of the decade. The 2nd person narrative is also a direct result of Bobby’s out of body experiences. Throughout the chapter, Bobby watches the events of his own life unfold as if he is a different person. When he is through “apologizing” to Lizzie, he says “and the question is, which one is really ‘you,’ the one saying doing whatever it is, or the one watching?” (191). We also see this metaphysical split when Bobby is talking about his affair with one of his old football teammates: “It wasn’t you in the car with James. You were somewhere else, looking down” (195). Bobby suggests that the person involved in the actual affair was not him at all, but a person he was watching. The 2nd person narrative only augments this idea, suggesting that it is not the reader who is the nameless “you” in the chapter, but Bobby speaking to his other self.
Throughout the novel, Egan structures chapters to act as solid yet purposefully incomplete puzzle pieces used to form some sort of cohesive statement about the characters as a collective representation. In this chapter, some of the aspects of Sasha’s life are revealed. In a flashback to the 90’s, we see Sasha losing her idealistic faith in the future, but we still see a much more optimistic and almost-childlike person than we are introduced to in the first chapter. Sasha tells Bobby that her father had to pull many strings to get her into NYU, and that he could very possibly have spies watching her to see she is fulfilling her duties. At times the text suggests that the characters do not really believe in the existence of the spies, but are nonetheless enchanted by this somewhat adolescent urge to acknowledge his wishes or directly act against them. However, when Sasha meets Drew, her childlike belief in the most-likely non-existent spies are washed away. We also learn her seemingly inexplicable kleptomania we are first confronted with in the first chapter is not all that inexplicable. Possibly, Sasha’s thieving ways act as some sort of nostalgic therapy for her, but could also represent her special bond with Bobby. Additionally, Sasha’s desperation to hold onto the past in face of the uncertainty of the future is highlighted in this chapter. She says that “In Naples…there were kids who were just lost. You knew they were never going to get back to what they’d been, or have a normal life. And then there were other ones who you thought, maybe they will” (200). But in this case Naples is synonymous with the chaotic America they call home, and the dim outlook she maintains for the people she met in Naples is also her fate. She pleads to Bobby that they are the “survivors,” and asks him to promise her that he will never do “that” again (201), but it is never directly stated whether she is referencing the Ecstasy or his suicide attempt.
The primary characters in the chapter, particularly Bobby, are on edge. Along with the speedy nature of the narrative, the chapter maintains an air of war and violence. The tangible violence exists when we learn early on that Bobby’s trip to Florida was on account of a failed suicide attempt. However, the intangible moments are sprinkled throughout the chapter, and coalesce towards the ending segment. The characters are trapped in a rapidly changing world, and Egan masterfully illuminates this concept with strong symbolism and diction. The confusion and mental weakness of the characters is eerily similar to demeanor of many characters found in the novels of the post-war, “Lost
Generation writers,” like Hemingway’s Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises, and the characters behave in a way to suggest they are not physically impotent like Barnes, but mentally impotent, as if some great calamity has befallen them. The characters seem simultaneously resilient to what the future will entail, and try to fight against it. Even Drew’s confidence and serene disposition breaks down when he is confronted with the news of Sasha’s previous life. This overall idea is captured most poignantly when Bobby and Drew take an ill-advised trip into the river, the large expanse of water symbolizing the large and unknown expanse of the future. Although the characters valiantly try to swim into the currents, but are helpless against it, and like the concluding words in The Great Gatsby, are symbolic “boats in the current borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Sasha’s last words in the novel, “fight fight fight” only augment the overall sense of war in the chapter.
Remaining steadfast in the postmodernist literary vein, even these seemingly all-encompassing portraits only provide a mere snapshot of the complicated and layered aspects of these multi-personality characters. This effect appears to be a deliberate effort by Egan, and contributes to the higher theme at work here: the perplexing and characters are mirrored byproducts of a complex, often confusing society. The only way to properly define the paradigm of American cultural values is to denote in terms of immense chaos. Egan justly illustrates this concept in the only way possible: to provide short portraits of characters equally parts fascinating, incomplete, and contradictory, but ones that consequentially reek of humanism. For instance, the chapters that feature Scotty in various stages of life are steeped in intended mystery and such thematic disparity that cannot be explained by the process of aging alone. Additionally, in analysis of their standalone merits, the sole chapters contain a myriad of contradiction, sometimes subtle and sometimes blatant. In the chapter “X’s and O’s”, the juxtaposition between the suave Bennie and the malodorous Scotty is large at first glance, but beneath the surface the characters are very similar to each other, thereby augmenting the theme of X’s and O’s. Neither Egan nor the characters seem to provide a definite theory explaining X’s and O’s. At times, such as when Scotty is speaking of Bennie’s clothes and his office, the disparities in their lives could not larger, thereby temporarily disregarding the X’s and O’s theory. However, it is not unreasonable to think that within the theorem of time and fate, a person’s life can be dramatically altered in the blink of an eye, the repeated multiplications over time of such could produce great disparities, but the fate altering events are nevertheless often minute. Additionally, although Scotty seeks to paint himself as a savior, he engages in the same sort of “power-play” moves that he seems to disdain when used by people like Bennie. Although this chapter sets the groundwork for a fascinating dynamic between the two characters, it is not until the final chapter of the novel where Egan’s desired themes play out. Time and time again in the novel, we see characters which would be difficult to classify as likeable. However, the positive and negative traits within them are apparent in all characters, albeit in different forms. For instance, Scotty’s performance in the chapter “Pure Language” seems to amaze the crowd with its genuine emotion and artistry, something that, as alluded to by Egan many times, is absent from the cultural climate of the 21st century.
One of the most interesting effects of the novel is how Egan handles time within the narrative. The reader is allowed to peer in at the characters in different stages of their life. The chapters that deal with the more adolescent portraits of certain characters often brim with an accelerated pitch reminiscent of novels like Naked Lunch and Last Exit to Brooklyn. Egan accomplishes several points with this rapid-style narrative. The most glaring is that the style mimics the speedy musical pulse signature to the sound of the bands Egan mentions like The Germs and early punk music, a whirlwind of weighty plot points and descriptive diction. But as always, Egan’s effect plunges much further into the depth. The principle characters in this chapter are all in their early adult years, the climax for most people in terms of irresponsible behavior and staggeringly naïve ideals about the ways of the world. The confident and inexhaustible rhythm at which these characters live suggest that they are completely assured of themselves of their lives, much like the basic premise of one punk rock’s earliest anthems, “Complete Control,” by The Clash. So far these characters have been immune to the process of acclimation into the real world and adult life. As Egan conveys it, innocence and nativity is an inevitable stage of life, but the transition into the mostly mundane world of adulthood is harsh and unforgiving. This theme is prevalent in the following chapter as well, and the juxtaposition between adulthood and childish innocence is captured perfectly when Lou, the wizened adult, is standing next to his young son Rolph. The unidentifiable anger that Rolph feels during the conversation suggests his first entry into the real world. This scene is very similar to the way Biv’s fairytale innocence is shattered irreparably when he sees Willie Loman, his father, having an affair in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Later on in the novel, when Rolph’s suicide at the age of 28 is mentioned, the reader can surmise that Rolph’s former childhood notions of wonder did not last when he was confronted with the harsh realities of adult society. However, within the complicated strands of the issues Egan is toying with also exist complicated themes. Sometimes in the novel, the children characters are the ones with the most finely tuned insight into the actual affairs of their lives. In the slideshow chapter, despite her autism, Ally is able to poignantly and accurately capture not only the theory of blank space in music, but the strained dynamics of her family. Her perspective shines with such sagacity, wit, and factual support, that it is difficult to deny that she is likely the most in sync with how her family operates on a daily basis. Similar to the Shakesperian fool, Ally is the unlikely character within the short story who can properly fathom her family’s overall structure.
Artificiality is a common thematic thread in the novel, and the desire for some characters to penetrate falsity often manifests itself in frantic ways. In the chapter, “Forty Minute Lunch: Kitty Jackson Opens Up About Love, Fame, and Nixon,” we see journalist Jules Jones attempt every strategy imaginable to break the façade that his subject seems to be enshrouded in. Similar to the journalist interviews books of Rolling Stone staff writer, Neil Strauss, and former Spin magazine staff writer, Chuck Klosterman, Jones attempts to stray from the overly subservient role that journalists often to play in the careers of their subjects, and instead embark upon a shred of meaningful discourse. However, the most closely relatable is Truman Capote’s 1980 treatise, Music For Chameleons. Much in the same vein as Jones, Capote ruthlessly questions American subjects of immense adoration such as Marilyn Monroe. Just within the first few lines of the chapter, we learn that everything about Kitty Jackson is inorganic and constructed. Later it is discovered that she named her horse Nixon, a name that in America is almost synonymous with a president whose entire incumbency was based on the premise of charming the public while cheating them in private. Although his attempts to unwrap the intricate folds of Kitty Jackson’s contrived mannerisms and dialogue are ultimately unsuccessful, Jones still provides refreshing insight into the tendency of “normal” Americans to esteem these. “Christ it’s such a farce…why do we all bother to participate” (177).
Artificiality takes a different form in the chapter “A to B.” In probably the most sweeping chapter on the 21st century in the novel, Egan masterfully underscores the all underlying themes of the novel. Here we see couple Bennie and Stephanie mingling into a staunchly conservative environment that bears little resemblance to the liberal rock-and-roll lifestyle they had previously been accustomed to. Although seemingly unified by an “us-against-them” bond in the beginning stages of the novel, Stephanie quickly strives for recognition, respect, and above assimilation into this foreign environment
and from the people she would typically dislike. When Kathy allows her the privilege to become her doubles partner, Stephanie utterly immerses herself in the new niche however, even donning similar outfits to Kathy and socializing at Country Clubs. In her exchange for artificiality, Stephanie loses sight of actuality, and until the final moments of the chapter is completely oblivious to the fact of her husband having an affair with Kathy, her pseudo-friend. Arguably, the most poignant summarization of the artificial aspects of our society that Egan wishes to address in the novel occur when Stephanie and her brother Jules meet with Conduits front-man, Bosco. Stephanie is stunned to learn of Bosco’s planned “Suicide Tour,” in which he believes will no doubt enthrall the reality-television-show populace that secretly crave witnessing destruction in others. In Bosco’s deference of Stephanie’s unwillingness to support the spectacle, Bosco issues one of the most enduring and principle of the novel in the form of the rhetorical question: “Time’s a goon, right? (127). Bosco’s question represents the constant idea of the novel— the passage of time, and how people are powerless to stop it. In her essay, “Time, Thrashing to Its Own Rock Beat,” Janet Maslin puts deserved focus on this critical passage and the concept of time within the novel: “Taking some of her inspiration from Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time” as well as some from “The Sopranos,” she creates a set of characters with assorted links to the music business and lets time have its way with them. Virtually no one in this elaborately convoluted book winds up the better for wear” (1). The Proust connection is impossible to separate from the thematic cohesion of the characters’ lives, and is summarized by author and philosopher, Alain de Botton: “The title In Search of Lost Time gets to the heart of what the book’s about, because this very long novel by this very strange Frenchman is mostly a consideration of how time, as it were, slips through our fingers, how we are alive but most of the time not properly attuned to the world around us. In other words, we’re constantly wasting our time” (1). In the case of Stephanie, her short encounter with Bosco causes her to reflect on her current life, and all the roads that have taken her to this strange period of her life. As mentioned earlier, throughout the novel we see a constant return to the theme of adolescent naivety and invincibility, and how people are harshly forced to come to terms with the responsibilities and sacrifices of adult life. In a long-listed stream of memories, Stephanie ponders the days of her youth when she beheld this same invincible attitude and naïve view of life: “She was thinking of the old days…premarriage, preparenthood, premoney, pre-hard drug renunciation, pre-responsibility of any kind…engaging in acts that had more than once included (for her) shooting heroin, because none of it was serious” (131). However, as Bosco brilliantly surmises, time is a goon, and there is no single force that can stop it. Additionally, with time comes change, and often times these changes are personally undesired but must be undertaken to serve some sort of purpose.
Public relations, job description, the bulk of which consists of deliberate strategies to conceal truth and fabricate a person’s public image. As is the case with Dolly, publicists are often forced to sacrifice notions of morality and ethics in an effort to fulfill their job descriptions: “When the first installment appeared in her bank account, Dolly’s relief was so immense that it almost obliterated the tiny anxious muttering voice inside her: Your client is a genocidal dictator” (139). Even her nickname, La Doll, alludes to manufactured toys that are only pseudo-representations of impossibly flawless humans that do not exist in reality. “How could a man in a fuzzy blue hat have used human bones to pave his roads?” (141).
In 1966, The Beach Boys released a song entitled “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times.” Upon its release, the song was notable not only for the immense sonic departure from the typical group’s sounds, but the level of complexity within the music and the lyrics. Different from usual Beach Boys songs of that time, all members sing prominently on the song in a brilliant use of vocal harmony layering. The song, incorporating masterful uses of blank space, excellently encapsulating the rapidly changing environment of 1960’s American society and the effect it had on the people who witnessed it. The culminating effect of the song, with all members echoing the same tantalizing chorus in different vocal patterns, mimics the ebb and flow of Jennifer Egan’s masterpiece, A Visit From The Goon Squad. Her plethora of characters, despite their great disparities in personal experiences and personality traits, ultimately all echo the same theme— unfamiliarity in a rapidly changing world. In popular culture, goons often take different physical forms, but most always represent a sneaky creature who one must inevitably reckon with. As Bosco suggests, time is a goon. Time eventually becomes the downfall of all the characters, both the desire to return to freer days or the inability to cope with more restricted times. Often times, these characters attempt to immerse themselves in positions they would previously abhor, strictly in order to survive the goons. By the novel’s departure, we have a terrifying, yet brilliant compass of the society that governs us.