It began the usual way, in the bathroom of the Lassimo Hotel. Sasha was adjusting her yellow eye shadow in the mirror when she noticed a bag on the floor beside the sink that must have belonged to the woman whose peeing she could faintly hear through the vaultlike door of a toilet stall. Inside the rim of the bag, barely visible, was a wallet made of pale green leather.
I am a cantankerous old misanthrope. This may come as a surprise to many because my outer layer is that of a smiling, polite young woman. Do not be fooled. Deep inside where I should have a heart there is only rusting mechanical circuitry. I’m the person for whom going out on a Saturday night is the seventh circle of Hell. I just don’t care about what Person A said or did to Person B. I’d rather be home alphabetising my textbooks – ah yes, the sweet, comforting rhythm of textbook rearrangement.
This is reflected in my reading styles. The Oulipo writers feel like my compadres, seeking to strip all the fluff out of literature and replace it with clever tricks of narration and language. Yes —much better that a pronoun becomes the protagonist than an actual, ridiculous human being. Or Asimov: where you can excuse the flimsy-to-the-point-of-insulting characterisation because it’s just a kind of scaffolding to explore some philosophical idea about the future of science. Yes, human beings are messy and uninteresting and I can never remember their names. Banish them!
This is why it came as such a surprise that I really liked Jennifer Egan’s book about human lives and relationships, A Visit from the Goon Squad.
Actually, ‘really liked’ is hardly adequate for what happened. This book unwound a copper tendril into my brain and then sent electric pulses deep inside. It engaged me, then by the end completely owned me. I now love this book with a kind of awe—the awe of ‘how did she just do that?’
I am left with that kind of soft, slightly scared, submissive feeling toward Jennifer Egan—the feeling you get when you suspect you are in the presence of a genius.
How the book works
Chapter One begins with a woman named Sasha contemplating whether or not to steal a wallet that’s been left in the bathroom of the Lassimo Hotel. Right from the start Egan’s showing her stuff. From the mention of Sasha’s yellow eye-shadow to the personally affronted tone of her interior monologue to the evocative description of the ‘fat, tender wallet, offering itself to her hand’—all in the first paragraph—suddenly I knew Sasha, saw her as a fellow human being, full of fuckupedness and struggle against the world and self, and an interesting thing happened: I was rapt, fascinated to know how she got this way, how she will end up. How I will end up. How we will all end up.
Egan evokes the same reaction from seemingly throw-away lines referencing other people in Sasha’s life, like her boss, who is the subject of a half-sentence aside:
[…] Bennie Salazar, her old boss, who was famous for founding the Sow’s Ear record label and who also (Sasha happened to know) sprinkled gold flakes into his coffee – as an aphrodisiac, she suspected – and sprayed pesticide in his armpits.
Then the chapter ends, and we leave Sasha in her tiny New York apartment, and the narrative shifts—and it’s to Bennie Salazar, who will be the subject of this next chapter. Soon his gold-and-pesticide habits are made understandable in the context of his own life and struggles. Along the way reference is made to a moment in Bennie’s youth, and in the third chapter—zap, we are now back in time with this other person, previously a character of fleeting incidentality, and now magically a whole universe in their own right.
Thus continues the book, passing the centre of attention from person to person like a baton, back and forth through time, from first-person to third and even second-person narration, and at one stage even to a story told entirely in the medium of Powerpoint slides (which turned out to be one of the most touching and memorable for me. Again: how did she do that?). But the stories always loosely orbit Sasha and Bennie. And they always show how human life is like a fractal: examine a single supporting character and there is an entirely new and compelling story to be told, each with its own supporting cast that can similarly be enlarged to reveal… et cetera.
The terribleness and the beauty
The first half of this book was at times really confronting. There are people in it who have failings of character that make them poisonous to everyone around them. Whole solar systems of captured characters orbit around one particularly destructive man named Lou, and we see the moments in these characters’ lives where single decisions put them on the path to be ruined by him. It’s terrifying to be shown how easily we can screw things up for good.
But thankfully there is also one character arc (and maybe more) that shows how people can wrest happiness from the jaws of complete personal chaos. In the midst of the wreckage of those who fought and lost, and the zombies of those who are fighting just to survive day to day, it’s a huge relief to have at least one person you can cheer for because she’s achieved that rare prize: quiet happiness.
One of my favourite aspects of the book is the way two different chapters in different sections form a contrasting pair: in each a father (Lou, Drew) leaves a group of people to go on a night-time walk into a quiet open space with one of their children. In both moments nothing happens but silence punctuated by fragments of conversation. But for both children it’s a memorable moment—though one is a turning point that leads to complete self-destruction, while the other one is catalyst for growth and connection.
Egan makes me think about what she’s just shown us, and makes me try to work backwards to understand how these people ended up in such different places. What were the forks in the road that changed these lives? What made those good lives good? Would we make better decisions? How do we know?
She makes me think these things without ever asking me up front.
The big picture
A Visit from the Goon Squad is not just about people and the people they know. It’s about America in the twenty-first century, a country in thrall to a crumbling, stratified capitalist system that’s lost its sense of identity and morality.
In that way it’s applicable to many western countries, Australia included. In this last news week alone, Australian politicians have perpetrated moral atrocities on asylum seekers, made laws that continue to de-level the playing field by supporting the rich and penalising the rest, stoked our fears of terrorism as a precursor to removing our liberties, and actively sabotaged industries that threaten environmentally-destructive companies’ profits. In a country with such warped priorities—where things like human dignity and the natural environment are seen as worthless instead priceless—is it any wonder that we are so screwed up on a personal level as well?
Maybe in ten years’ time we, like the character Alex, will be living in a cheap highrise in the middle of a city, with the narrow view about to be obstructed by a bigger tower being built next door, listening through the thin floor to the teenager masturbating in the upstairs flat and the surveillance helicopters circling ahead, and hoping we will make enough money recruiting social media advertorials to support our family. And maybe, like Alex, we won’t even be wondering where it all went wrong, because it happened so gradually we didn’t even bother to notice.
And at that point, maybe someone will hold up a copy of A Visit from the Goon Squad and say: Jennifer Egan saw it coming.
This book was mostly read on a plane between Adelaide and Melbourne.