I read Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010) last September and was absolutely riveted by its splendorous combination of arch cleverness and compassion. It seemed impossibly architectural. I kept muttering, ‘How did she do it?’ as I leafed through the pages. It has multiple narrative voices and only occasionally intersecting lines of plot. Yet Egan manages to pull it off, making a genuinely moving story about music and failure and growing up and suicide and lying and hoping against hope that all this is going somewhere.
A few reading friends had recommended Goon Squad to me as ‘very clever’ and ‘you like this sort of thing, don’t you?’, which had the unfortunate effect of putting me off for some months. I have grown weary of the po-mo knowingness that characterises so much fiction that gets called ‘clever’ – I want stories about people and perplexity and I am less interested in stylistic pyrotechnics that are at heart rather empty. Call it a reader’s mid-life crisis, but I want a fire to warm myself by in the books I read, as well as style. I want to feel I have good company in life’s perpetual imperfection.
But it turns out that I am an Egan fan. Yes, she is very clever and she must map out her stories from beginning to end because they fit together like a well-made Swiss machine. But she has not sacrificed the mess of being human and her characters are, for all the structural finesse of their creator, as fully mired in the quandary of living as the rest of us.
Goon Squad was a great solace to read. I was in the midst of a year that was going quite wrong. The life I had envisioned for myself as I had, in my late twenties, thought about this age, was clearly not going to come to pass. I had another life instead, and that life was, after all, fortunate, just more complicated than I had expected.
Egan speaks to these things – loss, shock, solace, making do and finding one’s way. We follow her characters from invincible or uncertain early adulthood into middle age. Some make it. Some don’t.
One of the themes of the novel is our culture’s enchantment with youth and potential, and the cost we pay for that enchantment by being completely unprepared when life proves more fleeting and limited than we thought. Brought up on the mantra of ‘follow the dream’ Egan’s characters are faced with the mid-life question of ‘Where to now?’ She deals with lack and how learning how to accept it is essential to living well.
Egan’s characters’ various neurotic responses to life’s inherent imperfection is what drives her narrative; those always in search of the next definitive peak experience paradoxically put off fully entering into life. In the passage that gives the novel its title, a once cultishly adored indie rock singer regards his obesity and fading health, his lost career. He says, “Time’s a goon.” In a darkly hilarious take on contemporary mores, Bosco, the ex-indie rocker, plans a ‘Suicide Tour’ in which he plans to kill himself by trying to incarnate his youthful vigor and frantic on-stage persona in a final farewell ‘comeback’.
In this way, Egan’s novel reminds me of the line from the poem by Robert W. Service, “It is Later Than You Think”:
Lastly, you who read; aye, you
Who this very line may scan:
Think of all you planned to do …
Have you done the best you can?
See! the tavern lights are low;
Black’s the night, and how you shrink!
God! and is it time to go?
Ah! the clock is always slow;
It is later than you think;
Sadly later than you think;
Far, far later than you think.
For indie music fans there is a lot to like in Goon Squad – a love of this music informs its stance of being earnest, yearning and ironic all at the same time. This is evident in this graphic-novel style review of Goon Squad I found. Thanks to Cafe Con Lech Con Guards: http://cafeconguads.tumblr.com/
After Egan won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2011 for A Visit from the Goon Squad, her publishers re-issued an earlier work, Look At Me. In some ways, I liked this novel even more.
Look At Me has a similar structure to Goon Squad in that we follow a range of characters in parallel lives. While in her later novel Egan ponders loss and survival, getting through and making do, in Look At Me, she invites her readers to consider our obsession with image and being seen.
The main character is Charlotte Swenson, a one-time successful model whose career is on the wane. Suffering a car accident that smashes her face, Charlotte is literally put back together by a surgeon and 80 titanium screws. The result is that she is still miraculously normal looking, but the face that she has traded with since her teens is gone. None of her former friends or agents recognise her or even want to know her – she loses her identity as well as her income.
Egan takes on a hard task with her protagonist. Vain, shallow and self-pitying, Charlotte is an unattractive heroine. She had knowingly given up a college education in favour of glamour and being an ‘it’ girl. Failing to turn her face into an advantageous marriage or mistress-hood at the right time, Charlotte is now left scrambling to cash in on her story. Her obsession with never having fully ‘made it’ – having fallen just short of being a super-model – Charlotte’s reveries dwell on her youthful vision of success. This is symbolised in her mind as a penthouse ‘mirrored room’– the site of endless looking, endless glamour, where time is frozen and she never grows old.
In counter-point to Charlotte is a plain teenager with the same name in Rockford, Illinois. Her beloved brother is in remission from leukaemia and in the midst of this crisis her family all but ignore her. She conducts a clandestine affair with a maths teacher at the local high school. He, in turn, is a terrorist, lying low, constructing a false identity, and planning his blow against American excess and consumerist bloat. Across town, Moose, a faded high-school star athlete, nurses failure and paranoia as a marginal academic. In each case, the future and the past tug at them, marooning them in the predicament of how to become someone or lose who they have been.
Look At Me is a philosophical novel; in it the author asks us to consider the role of image and being seen as a component of identity. She suggests that we have amped-up this aspect of selfhood at the cost of losing our interior life. Charlotte Swenson’s predicament underlines that the bigger the image, the less substantial the self.
When her protagonist becomes involved in an online ‘reality’ venture in which she sells her own life through a webcam and diary, Egan takes her exploration to a logical extreme. Presciently, she constructs a world in which what was once considered interior – our ‘true selves’ – has since, with burgeoning Web 2.0 technology, become something we turn inside out. Egan predicts a world where privacy is merely obscurity.
Charlotte Swenson only somewhat redeems herself, but the journey on the way is deeply engaging.
Both Egan novels are recommended reads.