Monday, March 21, 2016

Pick Your Poison: Past, Present, or Future

             A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan, deals with our experience of time and more importantly the passing of time.   The story features a long list of characters struggling to find out the exact moment that changed their lives, or rather, where their life’s trajectory suddenly shifted.  In this quest, the characters come to symbolize different aspects of time, and in so doing, end up depicting the struggle inherent with choosing to focus on the past, present, or future.  The prevailing message of the book seems to suggest that the future is the only reasonable point in time to focus on; the past is suicidal; and the present can be destructive.  Egan best demonstrates this through her characters Sasha, Bennie, and Lou.  Sasha represents a forward outlook on time; Bennie represents the past; and Lou represents the present. 
Sasha is the first character presented in the book, and although not entirely obvious in the first chapter, Sasha represents the future.  When we first meet her, she is between two points in time; the past, which involves Alex; and the present, which involves her psychiatrist, Coz.  She is a kleptomaniac who steals to fill a hole left in her heart from an event prior to the first chapter.  The hole is obviously imaginary, but it represents the kind of mark the past might leave on a person.  She could focus on the past and fall into that hole, or she can continue looking forward to what is next.  What is interesting about Sasha is her resilience to the past, a quality that mitigates the damage and allows her to continue looking forward.  While she is in the room with her psychiatrist, she has the desire to please Coz: “She wanted badly to please him, to say something like It was a turning point; everything feels different now, or I called Lizzie and we made up finally, or I’ve picked up the harp again, or just  I’m changing I’m changing: I’ve changed! Redemption, transformation—God how she wanted these things.  Every day, every minute.  Didn’t everyone?” (Egan 16).  In this same chapter, she steals a note that says ‘I BELIEVE IN YOU’ from Alex’s wallet.  This shows that Sasha has faith that things will get better, that she can overcome the obstacles that come with times passing.
She further exhibits this future-focused quality in the chapter, “Out of Body.”  After her friend Rob tries to commit suicide, she tells him about her time in Naples.  She says, “there were kids who were just lost.  You knew they were never going to get back to what they’d been, or have a normal life.  And then there were the other ones who you thought, maybe they will” (Egan 200).  This passage does a lot to explain the many characters in the book.  There are those who are never able to make it, like Rob, who isn’t able to live a normal life after his suicide attempt.  Sasha goes on to tell Rob, “What I’m saying is, We’re the survivors” (Egan 200).  Sasha was correct in describing herself as a survivor, in one of the last chapters of the book, she has a family and is able to leave the past where it belongs.
Bennie is a character who represents the past.  In chapter 2, we see him with a long list of regretful moments in his life.  A list that he continually adds to.  He also eats gold flakes in an attempt to re-acquire his long lost sexual compulsions.  There is a heavy emphasis on times passage in this chapter.  When he visits a former band that he signed ten years prior, he reflects how old the sisters have gotten.  Looking down at his collection of gold flakes he thinks:  “Gold didn’t tarnish, that was the thing.  The flakes would look the same in five years as they did right now” (Egan 34).  When he drops his son off at his ex-wife’s house he has trouble figuring out what to call the house.  “they were approaching his former house, as he thought of it.  He couldn’t say “old house,” but he also couldn’t say house anymore, although he’d certainly paid for it. 
Bennie also shows his inability to leave the past in the past when he and his wife move to California in Chapter 7.  At the Crandale Country Club, Bennie feels as if he doesn’t not fit in.  During one encounter with a patron, Bennie becomes so inflamed that he refuses to back to the country club, going so far as to get angry at his wife for going to the club without him.  Luckily for Bennie, he eventually matures and is able to become a survivor like Sasha.  In the last chapter of the book, Bennie seems to be taking in a protégé, like Lou who took Bennie in.  In a conversation with the potential protégé, Alex from the first chapter, Bennie says that he knows Alex will do a project for him.  Alex asks Bennie why he thinks that.  “A feeling,” Bennie said, rousing himself slightly from his deep recline.  “That we have some history together that hasn’t happened yet” (Egan 311).  This quote shows that Bennie is looking towards the future now and not the past.  He continues: “The problem is,” Bennie went on, “it’s not about sound anymore.  It’s not about music.  It’s about reach.  That’s the bitter fucking pill I had to swallow” (Egan 312).  Again, this quote shows that Bennie has finally put the past behind him.  Good news because most of the characters who get caught lingering in the past die, such as Rob and Lou’s son Rolph.
Lou is a character who comes to represent the present.  When we first meet Lou, he is an older gentleman hanging out with young girls.  When Rhea mentions his age in relation to herself and her friend Jocelyn, Lou says, “I am your age” (Egan 56).  He concludes the conversation by saying “I’ll never get old” (Egan 57).  As we find out in a later chapter, he lied, he does get old and eventually dies.  Lou shows us what can happen when a person focuses only on the present.  His past is left in a destructive wake because he neither plans for the future nor learns from the past.  He has several broken marriages and six children in all.  His daughter Charlie will join a cult and contract salmonella from eating raw eggs, and have to get surgery on her nose from a bad coke habit.  His son Rolph will commit suicide at the age of twenty-eight.  When Lou is dying himself, Rhea and Jocelyn go to visit.  Both their lives have been affected by Lou in a negative way.  Jocelyn especially has trouble in the wake of Lou.  The prevailing message of Lou is that constantly living in the present is a destructive habit for everyone involved.
            A Visit from the Goon Squad essentially boils down to the random moments that change our lives forever.  However, through Egan’s use of character, we see how focusing on anything besides the future can be a dangerous thing


  1. Very convincingly argued - if there's not a scholarly journal article out there along this line of analysis there should be! I think a slew of characters could fit into these perspectives. Even Sasha's own daughter seems to have this forward-looking insight into life. I'm thinking of the moment of teenage self-reflection wherein she notes that she can tell her role will always be to make people uncomfortable.

  2. Your argument both clarifies and complicates Egan's stance on the future. Initially I thought that the novel was somewhat critical of the future given Lulu's odd belief system (presented in the future), which focuses only on the act of believing rather than the motive for belief. Bennie's lament of the digitalization of the music industry, which destroys originality, also seemed to be a shot at the future of music. Your placement of Bennie as stuck in the past clarifies his spite for the future of the music industry, as well as his new business model in the future, headed by Lulu. However, Scottie's performance was anything but digitalized, and he has had no part in the technological innovations of the 21st century, yet he is able to inspire the entire crowd. He is able to embrace the future through the emotions of his past, which are channeled musically.