“What I’m Afraid Of”: Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit From The Goon Squad

I wrote about Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad before I read it. Encouraging as it does preconceptions, this approach is not always a wise policy, and the shower of awards it has received can only contribute further to readerly expectations.

I wrote about Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad as I was reading it. I’m not convinced that Twitter is the best venue for book discussion of any sort, even live-tweeting your thoughts as you move through a novel’s chapters. It adds an extra interrogative element, an urge to come to snap judgements, which may or may not enhance a reading, even if it improves one’s enjoyment of it.

I’m writing about Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Good Squad now that I’ve finished reading it. “Time’s a goon right?” the record producer Bennie Salazar asks his childhood friend and latest unit-selling sensation, Scotty Hausmann, near the end of the book. “You gonna let that goon push you around?” [pg. 329] The 13 stories which make up this mosaic novel lie atop, between and beneah each other, eddying back and forth in a bullying, adamant timestream which beats up on and reshapes their shared cast of characters: an idealistic bass player in one story will be a washed up mogul in another; a compromised, weary husband and father will be a footloose, irresponsible first date elsewhere. Beginning, middle, and end. These terms mean little in Egan’s networked novel.

And this is its principle success. At Paste Magazine, Elissa Elliot wrote rather sagely that, “It’s appropriate, I think, to appreciate Egan’s work as a prototype.” A Visit From The Goon Squad attempts to speak intelligently to a changing America (and, secondarily, a changing world), in which human interaction is changing – and human values (or the values we apply to human endeavours and their products) are shifting. “I go away for a few years and the whole fucking world is upside down,” complains Jules Jones, the convincted rapist and celebrity journalist who appears as a character in one chapter only to crop up in another as its author. He’s talking about 9/11, and the millennial transformation of communications: “Buildings are missing. You get strip-searched ever time you go to someone’s office. Everybody sounds stoned, because they’re e-mailing people the whole time their talking to you.” [pg. 123] Elsewhere, La Doll, the successful publicist who comes a cropper when a big event she plans for Hollywood royalty goes disastrously, scaldingly, wrong, opines that “the world where she’d thrived had shortly proceeded to vaporize – now even the rich believed they were poor.” [pg. 143]

But the ’08 crash isn’t the last epochal event of the novel: in its closing chapters, the novel skips forward into our own near-future, and in its twelfth, a cascading collection of slides composed by the daughter of Bennie Salazar’s old PA, we see square miles of solar panels in a ruined Californian desert: “They look evil. Like angled oily black things. But they’re actually mending the Earth.” [pg. 288]  So the novel is about profound change, about a series of mini-singularities which come so close together in part because information and people can now flow so (too?) easily. Egan’s world is an unstable one, both internally and externally. We meet suicidal college students, depressed housewives, ragged old rockstars. But we also see a world in which even babies are consumers, and one in which fascist, genocidal generals get their own successful PR person; in which America is in decline and in which “pretty soon it’ll seem strange that you could ever lose someone, or get lost.” [pg. 199]

That last prophecy gets to the heart of how Egan envisions unstable interconnectedness working: A Visit From The Goon Squad is an ambivalent book, one which cycles at its close back to a hopeful young woman, new to New York and with keys to an apartment, but which is also aware that, in a world in which we cannot recreate ourselves – because every scrap of information about us is stored somewhere – it will be harder to run away from our actions. “He could never quite forget that every byte of information he’d posted online (favorite color, vegetable, sexual position) was stored in the databases of multinationals,” we read at one point, and are reminded of Adam Curtis’s current documentary series, All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace: characters in this novel have been very much commodified, are commodifying themselves. At the same time, however, there are chinks in this world-machine: Scotty Hausmann has never had a profile or a handset; questionable social marketing can nevertheless form crowds which can share profound, and honest, emotional experiences; we are presented, in a network’s ability to bridge the unspoken gap – the absence of the World Trade Centre, or the inability of a son to tell a father he loves him – with the chance of being more honest with each other, more open.

It’s an ambivalent message, and not always one executed with success: some of the chapters of the novel feel rather rote, and much of their contents you will have read before somehow, however much Egan’s tricks of perspective – PowerPoint, second person, fake journalism – try to persuade you otherwise. The mosaic approach has been done better by Don DeLillo, and the interconnectedness might remind us of Simon Ings’s The Weight of Numbers or even Ian McDonald’s River of Gods. But, as the usually sensible Sarah Churchwell writes in the Guardian, this balancing of influence and innovation – in other words the formal control, the structural cleverness by which it mirrors the new networks it depicts – is the book’s raison d’être. So it is Egan’s technical accomplishment, rather than necessarily its content or poetics, that is the impressive thing about her book. In many ways, she has borrowed from others in order actually to populate her system.

So A Visit From The Goon Squad, good but not great, may in its baroque ingenuity nevertheless help point a way forward for novels which seek to address a curious, liminal, finely balanced moment in history. But if other authors follow the route it indicates, then they must find something more distinctive to do within this hypertextual structure (in fact, in many ways, Great House feels like it’s already got there): ignoring beginning, middle and end gets you only so far.

Egan, Powers, and Post-Modernity

In a recent review of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad in the LRB, Pankaj Mishra made much of concepts of Americana, modernity and post-modernity. In a review of the book on his blog, David Hebblethwaite is somewhat less convinced that Egan nails these or any other subjects, and perversely this makes me want to read the book more; but Mishra is adamant: “Egan commemorates not only the fading of a cultural glory but also of the economic and political sumpremacy that underpinned it.” She does, so he argues, through a fragmented, at times hyperactive, account of the lives of a series of pop and rock music impresarios and hangers-on – America’s great gift to the world, presumably, being youth culture. In dealing with these themes, Mishra places Egan in no less august a lineage as that of Delillo and Pynchon, those chroniclers of late capitalism characteristic dissolution and atomisation.

I note this all as preamble to a further consideration of Richard Powers. I’ve recently read his Generosity for a review of this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist (part two of which was published today). Powers, it seems to me, is tilling the same ground Mishra suggests Egan combs. Here he is, for instance, on the writer of the core text on the course taught by his protagonist: “But place is in danger, Harmon claims. Our sense of here is rapidly disappearing in the globalizing, virtual onslaught.” [pg. 33]  This is a commonplace of contemporary commonplace (Mishra quotes DeLillo on “a landscape of consumer-robots and social instability”), but Powers seems less sure that this is true. Generosity is a kind of argument about the type of fiction which can construct as well as critique so changed an environment (its subtitle is ‘An Enhancement’). One of the key ways in which Powers dramatises this change, driven by increasingly consumerist and transformational science, is in the conflict between men like Thomas Kurton, the man who seeks to find beneficial genes and sell them, and a staid scientific community still in hock to old ideas about probity and stores of protected knowledge.

The betrayal in question splits along generational lines. In one corner, the old-style university geneticist, hands full of reagent, head full of a slowly accreting body of knowledge. In the other, the molecular engineer, hands on the computer simulations and head full of informatics, working for a start-up drug company that reduces even the research professor to a licensed client. Patience versus patients, say the old-style professors. Law versus awe, say the upstarts. [pg. 212]

Powers is uneasy about this: Kurton in particular is a weirdly liminal character, a hero in one reading and a villain in another. This multivalent characterisation reflects the instability of the emerging world – the emerging markets – he chronicles. If the novel is uncertain about Kurton, Kurton is certainly no fan of the novel. “Worse, fiction’s perpetual mistaking of correlation for causation drives Kurton nuts,” we read. “Even Camus can’t help deploying bits of his characters’ histories as if they explained all subsequent behaviour and beliefs.” [pg. 249]  Powers asks not just what place America in post-modernity – but what place the novel. According to Abigail Nussbaum’s round-up of Clarke reviews, I can read Hebblethwaite’s take on Powers, but not yet Mishra’s. How he relates to Egan in these regards might be interesting study.