Decay is a favourite artistic theme of mine. The melancholy of nostalgia is another. A Visit from the Goon Squad, roaming back and forth across time, has both in spades. The question has been raised whether it is a novel or a set of short stories; I’d come down on the side of “novel”, personally. Each chapter is told from a different perspective, at a different moment in time, but the core of the thing remains the same.
Music is the current running through these stories: the value of music to the individual, the way it can consume us and elevate us, take us back in time and express our ineffables.
The stories span from the 1970s, dancing on the sand in Africa, to a near future in which music has been fully commodified and neutered. It was good when I read it a few months ago; now, when the US National Endowment of the Arts is in danger, it strikes a different chord. In some ways it seems more necessary. It taps into some current fears, of climate change and capitalism and the loss of hope. A businessman looks back on his past at punk shows and wonders what happened to that kid. Life gets gradually more smoothed over, in a way that makes the reader feel a bit desperate, until – ah, no, that would be telling.
The title of A Visit from the Goon Squad refers to a quote from the book itself: “Time is a goon”. That is, it jumps you in a dark alley and fucks you up. Before you know it, twenty years has passed, and you’re wondering what happened to all those dreams you used to have. In one chapter, a girl is paused on the edge of high school graduation. Author Jennifer Egan skilfully evokes in us that time of life: looking back on the last however many years, when these people were your life and this was your every day, and knowing that soon that bubble will be burst, you’ll all go your separate ways, and nothing will be the same. There’s a sorrow to it, as well as an excitement. When that final year comes to an end there’s an undercurrent of self-aware finality: everything we are doing might be for the last time. We cling to these moments, and cherish them. Yet with that self-awareness, they become part performance. Another part of us is already looking forward, wondering whether this place and these acts are things we’ve already outgrown.
What I particularly liked is the way Egan will take a minor character from one story or another and project forward 30 years in the future. We see the fate of people who would otherwise have been empty shadows, and we care about them. Someone with a brief mention in one chapter will get another later. In books background characters – even supporting characters – can sometimes be just there, one-dimensional quest-givers and NPCs. The opportunity to see these characters again, later on, from another perspective in a different time, gives them real life and depth. There’s a great compassion here, a reminder to think more sympathetically towards those of whom we see only a sliver.
Goon Squad drags a little midway through, but when the story threads are drawn together at the end it is an immensely satisfying pay-off. It speaks of hope, and a wordless desire of humanity to live and speak, and I feel as if these things are particularly important right now, at this time in history. If we are afraid, we must stand and we must speak. There is a death in staying seated, staying quiet. At the same time, for many people across the world there is a rather more emphatic and immediate death in standing. We must do what we can when we find an opportunity to do so. Art is so valuable in that way. I think always of Guernica, but also of the spray-painted protest on a city wall, of New York subway post-its, of satire, of music, of love. If someone who is discouraged and despairing can see something that makes them smile and gives them hope and speaks to a part of them, that is valuable.
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