“When does a fake Mohawk become a real Mohawk? Who decides? How do you know when it’s happened?”
--Rhea from A Visit From the Goon Squad
I believe it was in my mid-twenties when I began downgrading my artistic aspirations from ‘the voice of a generation’ to what it has become ten years later in its more or less present incarnation, ‘a voice.’ It’s embarrassing looking back but there was a certain point of my life when I truly believed I would be one of those authors— the few, the proud— who would survive posterity not only as one of those writers whom people wanted to read but also whom they wanted to be. Hey, there’s still time and you never know but I’ve had to adjust my expectations into a more modest outlook. Sometimes I’m okay with this. Sometimes I’m not. I’m only human.
As you roll into your thirties, you should be hitting your career stride. When you aren’t, you can’t help but observe those who have. Particularly friends and acquaintances. If you dare go there, the route is peppered with questions, like, what is it about the neighbor’s grass? What makes it so green? Is it a human folly to envy the qualities of others or is it Madison Avenue marketing that has created this general dissatisfaction? Is the difference between happiness and discontent the difference between having chosen the life we lead and the life we have having chosen us? It doesn’t seem fair, does it? The way we are compared against the way we were supposed to be?
Whoever said introspection was for weenies never took a long, hard look at the mirror. ‘What if…?’ is the worst kind of self-interrogation since it almost always consequences in regret. This self, this person that we are leading now may be hard-won but isn’t necessarily the best person we could have been. Invariably something went wrong somewhere and this life we lead is the one we got stuck with, for better, for worse.
Disheartening this is, we can self-medicate. Sex, drugs, and rock and roll are viable options (but don’t they often mislead us away from our ideal selves?). Or one can read good literature that utilizes sex, drugs, and rock and roll to frame these questions. A worthwhile book need not answer the unanswerable— it’s enough that it reminds us that failure and humanity are cut from the same cloth and that this might be a beautiful thing.
It is certainly beautiful the way Jennifer Egan writes about it in her novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad, the closest a book has ever come to the literary equivalent of a solid mixed tape, rewinding and fast forwarding across the years, or perhaps ‘skipping’ over generation gaps, as the story—it travels between New York City, San Francisco, Naples, and Italy as well as from the early 1970s to the 2020s— is as much about the progress of technology as it is culture. The truth whether or not new technology is good or bad, necessary or distracting, safe or dangerous, nearly always depends on who’s asking. For those holding onto some yesteryear ideal, change is something to be despised, as Bennie Salazar, a record label owner who came of age in San Francisco’s late 1970s punk scene, wearies once the direction of his company changes after a corporate takeover:
“The problem was precision, perfection; the problem was digitalization, which sucked the life out of everything that got smeared through its microscopic mesh. Film, photography, music: dead. An aesthetic holocaust!”
Just as our relationship to music and musicians evolves with technology (shrinking considerably from LPs to cassette tapes and CDs, disappearing totally as a tactile thing with the rise of the mp3), so does the way we communicate with one another. As Bix, an NYU student doing his postgrad in computer engineering in early 1993 tells his friends, “This computer-message-sending is going to be huge—way beyond the telephone…” But though Egan touches on facebook, google and how “the days of losing touch are almost gone,” she goes further: a preteen using Power Point slides to describe her family’s dysfunctional faults and then later to the near future when Instant Messaging has become the medium for our more difficult words as when Lulu shares with Alex on their “handsets” that she “Nvr met my dad. Dyd b4 I ws brn,” texting him this even though they are sitting across from each other in a café.
But now you’re wondering who’s Lulu? And who’s Alex? In 2021, they are working together using Internet bloggers called ‘parrots’ to word-of-mouth the upcoming concert of Scotty Hausmann, a publicity-shy, burnt-out slide guitarist who played in The Flaming Dildos, the same High School punk band Bennie played with in the 1970s. Scotty had unsuccessfully pined for Jocelyn, a girl who learned the fast life as Lou’s teenage mistress. Lou is a super successful rock and roll producer-cum-hedonist that mentors Bennie. Bennie marries Stephanie, a one-time protégée to La Doll, Lulu’s mother and a PR titan who falls from grace. Stephanie’s brother, Jules, is a journalist who goes to jail for assaulting a movie star named Kitty Jackson. Meanwhile, Bennie makes a name for himself in the music business discovering and recording a punk band named the Conduits. Around this time his factotum is Sasha, a beautiful redhead who euphemistically calls her shoplifted things, “found objects.” She survives a druggie stint in Naples and leaves New York and the music business when she reconnects with her college sweetheart, Drew, moving to Arizona to start a family. She has an autistic son obsessed with great pauses in rock and roll songs and a daughter who expresses herself with Power Point slides. If it seems very six-degrees-of-separation, it is. One story’s peripheral character is another’s hero.
And heroes they are in a very rock and roll sense of the word: interesting people making catastrophic mistakes, sometimes large, sometimes so small it is hard to know exactly where everything went wrong. Once The Flaming Dildos disbanded, why did Bennie wind up with his own record label and a corner office on Park Avenue with a fantastic view while Scotty performed janitorial functions and fished for his lunch in the East River? It doesn’t bother Scotty too much when he goes to see his old friend again because, “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.”
Like the incremental movement of continental plates, pressures mount in our own lives to a breaking point, in which an inevitable seismic shift leaves a trail of victims, most especially ourselves. For Jules Jones, Bennie’s brother-in-law, once a promising, young writer who had come to New York full of ideas (“Who isn’t, at twenty-four?”), his decline began when he’d become another hack celebrity journalist. This is the late 1990s now and some are getting spectacularly wealthy while most are being left behind. His feeling is common to many of us, that sense of not belonging, of having missed some boat that’s not coming back for us. In a young, ingenuous film star, Kitty Jackson, he witnesses everything he will never be: beautiful, rich, successful, loved. His sole advantage over her, the one card he can play, is the knowledge that time, though slow and deliberate, takes no prisoners:
“Because Kitty is so young and well nourished, so sheltered form the gratuitous cruelty of others, so unaware as yet that she will reach middle age and eventually die (possibly alone), because she has not yet disappointed herself, merely startled herself and the world with her own premature accomplishments, Kitty’s skin—that smooth, plump, sweetly fragrant sac upon which life scrawls the record of our failures and exhaustion—is perfect.”
In a very confessional meta-me article for Details Magazine, he describes his attempted rape of Kitty in the canny, ironic prose so typical of magazine writing today, but briefly he too considers what went wrong:
“At what precise moment did you tip just slightly out of alignment with the relatively normal life you had been enjoying theretofore, cant infinitesimally to the left or the right and thus embark upon the trajectory that ultimately delivered you to your present whereabouts—in my case, Rikers Island Correctional Facility?”
It seems no accident then that the album central to this story should be called A to B, offered up by the Conduits’ former frontman, Bosco. Bosco was once a skinny, manic redhead known for his explosive live shows but he didn’t age well. As he explains to Stephanie, Bennie’s wife and his publicist, “The album’s called A to B, right? And that’s the question I want to hit straight on: how did I go from being a rock star to being a fat fuck no one cares about?” But A to B is not a comeback album— for Bosco it’s the only dignified way out of his messy life. It is his belief that this farewell tour should be a rock and roll suicide, “I want out of this mess. But I don’t want to fade away, I want to flame away— I want my death to be an attraction, a spectacle, a mystery. A work of art.”
Bosco believes his tour will be a success because of the public’s infatuation with “Reality TV.” Reality, of course, has everything to do with authenticity and is at play in the characters’ lives. It’s extremely important, yet somehow elusive, as being real is knowing oneself. As Rhea says enviously of her friend Alice, “I can’t tell if she’s actually real, or if she’s stopped caring if she’s real or not. Or is not caring what makes a person real?”
It’s not an easy question, but there might be some connection between authenticity and happiness, at least in this literary world. We are always in the act of becoming: artists, doctors, drug addicts, hookers, lovers, husbands, fathers and mothers— and some roles work better than others. It often depends on who you’re partnered with. Jules’ sister, Stephanie, knows that Bennie is unfaithful and she suffers to keep their marriage intact. Witnessing the flabby, tragic mess of Bosco, once a promising singer, now a joke on her hands, is a straw-camel’s back revelation: her life is a sham and an unhappy one at that. Helplessly she thinks of the old days: “premarriage, preparenthood, pre-money, pre-hard drug renunciation, preresponsibility of any kind…going to bed after sunrise, turning up at strangers’ apartments, having sex in quasi public, engaging in daring acts that had more than once included (for her) shooting heroin, because none of it was serious. They were young and lucky and strong….”
… And perhaps, real.
* * * * * * *
Published in 2010, Jennifer Egan has already won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Two days after receiving the Pulitzer, she inked a deal with HBO to adapt A Visit From the Goon Squad into a television series. It’s no surprise. Like very few novels, it succeeds on visceral, literary, and spiritual levels. It’s bold: besides the Power Point chapter, her point-of-view shifts between the third person, close first person and even the second person in a way that the ‘you’ is not directed at the reader but at the self-critical narrator himself. Skipping around between years, places, and heroes does not feel jarring in the least bit. Each story feels self-contained, yet integral, not to the greater story, but the unifying theme, that which relates to the inevitability of personal change.
Perhaps nowhere in the novel is this exemplified better than when Sasha disappears to Naples and her stepfather sends her Uncle Ted out to search for her. Instead of looking for her, Ted, a tenured arts history professor at a minor university, spends most of his time wandering museums, the ruins of Pompeii, and labyrinthine alleyways. He is away from his family and unusually pensive. Why had he sexually disengaged himself from his wife, Susan, to the point that there could be no more true intimacy between them? From an initial rage, Susan mellows into a “sweet, eternal sunniness that was terrible in the way that life would be terrible without death to give it gravitas and shape.” What is so tragic about this turn of events is that he didn’t abandon his desire for any other reason than because he could. He had ruined her and now having found Sasha and trying to win her confidence to come back with him to America, he helplessly recalls a happy moment before everything was irrevocably ruined. Herein may be the saddest paragraph in a bittersweet book:
“On a trip to New York, riding the Staten Island Ferry for fun, because neither one of them had ever done it, Susan turned to him suddenly and said, ‘Let’s make sure it’s always like this.’ And so entwined were their thoughts at that point that Ted knew exactly why she’d said it: not because they’d made love that morning or drunk a bottle of Pouilly-Fuisse at lunch—because she’d felt the passage of time. And then Ted felt it, too, in the leaping brown water, the scudding boats and wind—motion, chaos everywhere—and he’d held Susan’s hand and said, ‘Always. It will always be like this.’”
Perhaps Ted was caught up in the moment but he was certainly not disingenuous. At the time he believed it was true. As Bosco says, “Time’s a goon.” The novel’s boogeyman is as invincible and irrepressible as any villain in literature. Time sets the booby traps and we’re the ones clumsy enough to step on them— yet it might not be our fault. We can’t be so hard on ourselves as we don’t always have as many choices as it may seem.
Fucking up is a life process as universal as birth, childhood, adolescence, marriage, aging, and death. Being inevitable thus, we can only hope that when it happens to us, it a) is not lethal and b) perhaps we learn something.
Not all of us are lucky enough to balance self-destruction with redemption. A comeback is not always in the works. But sometimes it may be enough to learn from our mistakes and carry on the best we can.
Sasha speaks for the novel, if not a good percentage of the human race when comforting her friend, Rob, after a failed suicide attempt she reminds him:
“We’re the survivors.”