my honeysuckle flowers have bloomed today
Not sure why Coldplay is playing on my Agalloch Pandora radio station but I’ll take it.
Grieve no more
And breathe one last time
Now I lay thee down” —“Now I Lay Thee Down” by Machine Head
The first thing that you notice when going from chapter to chapter in Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit From the Goon Squad” is the unique structure. Most novels are linear, and the daring ones merely shun chronology with their structure. Goon Squad, however, skips across time, space, and perspective effortlessly. Each chapter is more like a short story which is somehow connected to the other stories in the book, either directly or indirectly. One chapter may be from the perspective of a significant supporting character in the previous story, or it may be from the point of view of a character that was simply seen in a photograph.
The structure goes further than that, though. Chapters are written in all different manners: first person, third person, apostrophe, a story written in smaller chapters, Journalistic field report, or, in the case of one of my favorite chapters, a slideshow. It should be noted that despite skipping over space and time in such a radical fashion, Egan’s work remains very intimate, leaving no character a cliche. In fact, she sometimes depicts characters as cliches in one story only to develop them in a different one, revealing a different set of intentions for what has been assumed in a previous story and sometimes leaving actions frustratingly ambiguous. The mosaic of human nature displayed is magnificent and awe-inspiring in this sense.
The central question proposed by each character seems to be, as one character asks very well (though in a different, unexpected context), “At what precise moment did you tip just slightly out of alignment with the relatively normal life you had been enjoying theretofore, cant infinitesimally to the left or the right and thus embark upon the trajectory that ultimately delivered you to your present whereabouts?” While each chapter provides some clues to an overall answer, some in darkly funny manners and others in emotionally heartfelt, ones, it is the bifurcating centerpiece of the novel, a chapter aptly entitled “From A to B,” which offers the most complete answer, one that involves decision-making, roots, and the raw, cosmic, unpredictability of life.
Such a question also deals with the uncontrollable passage of time and how it cannot be grasped to an extent which which one can take full advantage of it, a fact always at the loss of human experience. As one description goes, “They looked at one another in the failing light. The delicate bones of Sasha’s face were lightly freckled—it was a girl’s face, but she’d stopped being a girl when he wasn’t watching.” Some characters accept the impossibility, the sheer monumental undertaking, of keeping up with time and see time as a great, humbling equalizer which places the generally-considered-as-lowly position of a janitor the same as an executive. “I was working for the city as a janitor in a neighborhood elementary school and, in summers, collecting litter in the park alongside the East River near the Williamsburg Bridge. I felt no shame whatsoever in these activities, because I understood what almost no one else seemed to grasp: that there was only an infinitesimal difference, a difference so small that it barely existed except as a figment of the human imagination, between working in a tall green glass building on Park Avenue and collecting litter in a park. In fact, there may have been no difference at all.”
In a profound and powerful turn of events, the character later rebukes those views and gains ambition. “I’d tracked him down to snatch away these gifts life had shoveled upon him, wipe them out in a few emphatic seconds. This made me want to scream with laughter: Hey “buddy,” don’t you get it? There’s nothing you have that I don’t have! It’s all just X’s and O’s, and you can come by those a million different ways. But two thoughts distracted me as I stood there, smelling Bennie’s fear: (1) I didn’t have what Bennie had. (2) He was right.” Ambition is the way he deals with the passage of time - by becoming something greater than he was each previous day. In the end, it pays off.
It would be demeaning to suggest that Goon Squad merely deals with how people become “lost” and how they deal with it. The novel also deals with how the lost are treated. In one chapter, an art historian, lost himself, goes on a journey to Naples to find his long-lost niece only hoping to not run into her and when he does, the actions of the two are unexpected and humane, written with an elegance that makes the whole thing shockingly natural. The characters in the novel are treated with astonishing dignity and grace, and soon after finishing the book, you wish you could be with them for longer.
In the famous slideshow chapter, a character has an obsession with pauses in songs. He diligently keeps track of how long pauses are in rock and roll songs - two seconds, five seconds, and in the occasion of “Mighty Sword” by The Frames, more than a minute. The answer to why the character does that comes with difficulty, but it is deeply profound.
“The pause makes you think the song will end. And then the song isn’t really over, so you’re relieved. But then the song does actually end, because every song ends, obviously, and THAT. TIME. THE. END. IS. FOR. REAL.”
- Marcy: My husband was a movie freak. Actually, he was particularly obsessed with one movie, "The Wizard of Oz." He talked about it constantly. I thought it was cute at first. On our wedding night, I was a virgin. When we made love - you've seen the movie, haven't you?
- Paul Hackett: "The Wizard of Oz"? Yeah.
- Marcy: Well, whenever he - you know, when he came...
- Paul Hackett: Yeah.
- Marcy: ...he would scream out, "Surrender Dorothy!" That's all! Just "Surrender Dorothy!"
- Paul Hackett: Wow.
- Marcy: Instead of saying something normal like, "Oh, God," or something normal like that. I mean, it was pretty creepy! And I told him I thought so, but he just, he just couldn't stop, he just, he just couldn't stop, he just... couldn't stop.
This was the geography around which my reality revolved: it did not occur to me, ever, that people were good or that a man was capable of change or that the world could be a better place through one’s taking pleasure in a feeling or a look or a gesture, of receiving another person’s love or kindness. Nothing was affirmative, the term “generosity of spirit” applied to nothing, was a cliché, was some kind of bad joke. Sex is mathematics. Individuality no longer an issue. What does intelligence signify? Define reason. Desire - meaningless. Intellect is not a cure. Justice is dead. Fear, recrimination, innocence, sympathy, guilt, waste, failure, grief, were things, emotions, that no one really felt anymore. Reflection is useless, the world is senseless. Evil is its only permanence. God is not alive. Love cannot be trusted. Surface, surface, surface was all that anyone found meaning in… this was civilization as I saw it, colossal and jagged…” —
“American Psycho” by Bret Easton Ellis
Just picked up “Harry Potter and the Prizoner of Azkaban” and read the dedication, one person of which is “Jill Prewett,” which is probably where JK Rowling derived the name of the courageous Prewett Family.