Time is a What?

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.  Anchor Books.  340 pp.  $16.00. *****

I’m aware as a writer that many people I read are more talented than I, but now and then I’m pulled up short by a writer who does something I couldn’t even aspire to.  I felt that way about War and Peace when I was in college: no matter how long I lived, or how long I wrote, I would never see all that Tolstoy did, much less put it down on paper.  The Sound and the Fury struck me the same way, not just because of the marvelous writing, but also the astonishing technique.  Where did something like that come from?  I’m putting Jennifer Egan in some rarefied company, but I felt the same way about A Visit from the Good Squad, reading it with a feeling of utter astonishment.  And I did something with this novel I’ve seldom done with any other.  I finished it one night and sat down the next night to start over again.  It was better the second time.

If the novel is about anything—other than the dizzying complexity of life itself—it’s about a teenage rock band that we meet in the third section, one of those high school bands that was around for a while, then disappeared.  Two members of the band, Bennie and Scotty, become important for the story as a whole.  Bennie—who in the band was a terrible bass player—soon realizes that his real future is as a music producer, and attaches himself to an older mentor named Lou, who shows up in another section as the lover of a teenage girl.  And Scotty, a slide guitar player and the best musician in the band, soon disappears from view altogether, though he eventually emerges as the novel’s most important character.

I locate the novel’s center in that band despite the fact that Jennifer Egan herself, in talking about its genesis, spoke of a purse she saw somewhere with a wallet showing, wondering what would happen if a compulsive thief saw that.  The novel begins with that moment, a young woman named Sasha—a valued assistant to Bennie in his career as a music producer—seeing the wallet in a woman’s rest room and taking it.  She has a problem with such behavior, will nearly get in trouble on that occasion and will eventually loses her job because of it.  We see Sasha in another section as a renegade teenager who has fled the country with a rock singer, then bummed around for several years in Europe while her parents wondered frantically where she was, and eventually meet her again—in what is possibly the novel’s most inventive section, a teenage girl’s power point presentation—as a middle-aged married woman with two teenage children, one of them autistic.  (When I read somewhere that one chapter in this book was a Power Point presentation, I cringed.  I hate Power Point presentations.  But I found it one of the most moving chapters in the book.)  The autistic boy, like many people in the novel, is obsessed with rock music, especially with the pauses in songs, the moments when they seem to be over but then continue (a good example is the Four Tops marvelous “Bernadette”).

In a way it seems ridiculous to say that any character is central in this story, or most important; every chapter is a separate story, completely satisfying in itself.  But if a theme emerges from the novel as a whole—and for me one did—it is authenticity vs. its opposite, whatever you want to call that.  Fakery, I suppose.  Bennie, in his career as a music executive, desperately tries to stay true to the music that he loved when he was young, but he is going against the grain of the culture.  Scotty, I would say, is the one person who stays completely authentic.  To do that he almost drops out of the culture altogether.

For me the most electrifying single chapter was when Scotty—working as a school janitor in New York, and fishing in the East River to supplement his diet—realizes while reading a magazine he swiped from a newsstand that his old friend Bennie is an important person in the music world, and shows up at his office with a striped bass that he caught in the river, offering it as a gift (there are striped bass in the East River?).  Scotty, on the one hand, seems slightly nuts, but in another way is the most realized person in the novel.  He is the proverbial man who lives against the grain and therefore looks crazy, but it’s the culture all around him that is crazy.  Scotty sees the world through different eyes, is stunned by the beauty of Manhattan as seen from Bennie’s office, and he makes an amazing statement about his own situation.  “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 be no difference at all.”  The novel burst open in that chapter for me.  It went from being very good to great.

Scotty also appears in the novel’s final chapter, along with Bennie again.  That chapter seems to occupy space in an imagined future (though I’m not sure; it seems uncomfortably close to the present).  It would be unfair to go into much detail, but it is in that chapter that the theme of authenticity vs. fakery emerges most clearly.  (When a character asks Bennie what has happened to him that he is so far from where he wanted to be, Bennie says, “You grew up, Alex, just like the rest of us.”  What a world, where growing up involves abandoning our sincerity.)

In that earlier chapter with Bennie—the one where Scotty shows up with his fish—someone or other expresses the opinion that “Time is a goon.”  I honestly have no idea what that statement means, though it somehow sounds right, and is the only hint about the novel’s odd title.  Linear time has no place in this novel.  The narrative jumps around at will.  But there’s something deeply moving about the way these characters completely change through time and also stay the same.  They just are what they are at any given moment.  But that’s not unrelated to other things they’ve been, and will become.[1]

[1] For another statement of this same truth, we can consult Zen master Eihei Dogen: “Firewood becomes ash, and it does not become firewood again. Yet, do not suppose that the ash is after and the firewood before. You should understand that firewood abides in the phenomenal expression of firewood, which fully includes before and after and is independent of before and after. Ash abides in the phenomenal expression of ash, which fully includes before and after.”