Time, you old Gypsy Man,
Will you not stay,
Put up your caravan
Just for one day?
– Ralph Hodgson
“Time’s a goon, right?”
– Bosco, a character from A Visit from the Goon Squad
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan is a unique book which defies analysis, probably because it breaks all conventions of storytelling. In fact, it does not tell a story at all. It tells many stories, not by traditional narration but by cameo glimpses into the intertwined life of a handful of characters connected with the rock and roll scene.
There is Sasha, kleptomaniac and former junkie; who is assistant to music producer Bennie, who is struggling with a failed marriage and an erectile dysfunction. There are Bennie’s rock-and-roll buddies, Rhea who’s in love with him; Alice, who he is in love with; Scotty, whom Alice loves; and Jocelyn, whom Scotty loves but who is having an affair with Lou, a middle-aged music producer who is married with kids. Then there are Lou’s children, Charlene and Rolph; Bennie’s former wife, Stephanie and her disturbed brother Jules, a journalist who has served time for the attempted rape of up-and-coming starlet Kitty Jackson.
There’s Dolly, publicist and Stephanie’s one-time employer whose career has collapsed after a disastrous party, and who is trying to restructure her life by promoting a South American dictator and her dead-serious daughter Lulu, who is currently working for Bennie. There is Rob, Sasha’s lover from her teenage years who commits virtual suicide by trying to swim in the East River while totally stoned. There is Ted Hollander, Sasha’s uncle on a mission to Naples to locate his niece who is wasting her life as a junkie and a hooker. There is Alex (who has spent a random night with Sasha once), who is trying to garner some unethical publicity for Bennie’s event featuring Scotty, trying to rejuvenate the failed careers of Bennie, Scotty and himself. And there are Sasha’s children, Lincoln who is slightly autistic and Alison…
…Plus a host of other characters, adding to a tapestry stretched out over time and space.
The novel (?) twists and turns in and out through the lives of these people, whose lives and destinies meet and intersect at various points. The structure (or lack of it) brings to mind Paul Haggis’ award-winning movie Crash: but whereas the movie is focussing on a single incident which brings together disparate people and all the events leading to it, the book lacks any such focus. It moves back and forth in time, sometimes breaking the conventions of traditional narrative. Consider the following passage:
The warrior smiles at Charlie. He’s nineteen, only five years older than she is, and has lived away from his village since he was ten. But he’s sung for enough American tourists to know that in her world, Charlie is a child. Thirty-five years from now, in 2008, this warrior will be caught in the tribal violence the Kikuyu and the Luo and will die in a fire. He’ll have four wives and sixty-three grandchildren by then, one of whom, a boy named Joe, will inherit his lalema: the iron hunting dagger in a leather scabbard now hanging at his side. Joe will go to college at Columbia and study engineering, becoming an expert in visual robotic technology that detects the slightest hint of irregular movement (the legacy of a childhood spent scanning the grass for lions). He’ll marry an American named Lulu and remain in New York, where he’ll invent a scanning device that becomes standard issue for crowd security. He and Lulu will buy a loft in Tribeca, where his grandfather’s hunting dagger will be displayed inside a cube of Plexiglas, directly under a skylight.
Note the technique: time is suddenly telescoped, forcing the reader to lose focus and move back and survey the picture from a broader perspective. Also note the interesting fact that a major character, not yet formally introduced into the story [Lulu] makes an appearance here: it’s not clear on the first reading. In fact, this action happens outside the novel, and reinforces the impression the reader gets that he is only peeking into a cross-section of an enormously long and endless narrative, part of which is captured and laid out before him by the author.
The chapters are more of standalone narratives rather than parts of a coherent whole-yet they are inherently connected. Each tells part of the story from the viewpoint of a different character; some (for example, the fourth one) from the viewpoint of multiple characters. The narrative is sometimes in the past tense, sometimes in the present: sometimes first person, sometimes third person and once (chapter ten), second person. And chapter twelve leaves linear narrative by the wayside altogether – it is a PowerPoint presentation (in fact, this presentation is the key to the novel – but more about that later)!
Two themes run through the novel – time, and music. And it does not take great cerebration to connect the two together. Music is essentially an art form which is sculpted in time (to borrow from Tarkowski) but unlike the narrative arts, it is non-linear, with themes spanning out and spreading forth. And the pauses are as important as the beats. This is the theme of chapter twelve, the presentation prepared by Alison, Sasha’s twelve-year-old daughter.
The presentation is about the Blake family in general, Sasha, her husband Drew, and children (Lincoln, who may be slightly autistic and Alison, who is the author of the presentation). It is titled: “Great Rock and Roll Pauses”. The presentation talks about many things: Alison’s quarrels with her mother, Lincoln’s inability to communicate, Sasha’s reluctance to revisit the memories of her youth… all analysed with respect to Lincoln’s obsession with the rest pauses in rock-and-roll songs.
Lincoln is interested in the pauses to such an extent that he times them to the microsecond and records and loops them again and again. He knows each of them by heart: the music is his only connection to the world. Drew is worried about it: he does not understand this obsession-while Sasha, more attuned to the world of music, does to a certain extent. But it is Allison who is perfectly in sync with her brother, and can trace the tortuous connection in his mind when he says “Hey Dad, there’s a partial silence at the end of ‘Fly Like an Eagle’, with a sort of rushing sound in the background that I think is supposed to be the wind, or maybe time rushing past!” in place of “I love you, Dad.” It is she who graphs his pauses, thus providing spatial representation to his sculptures in time.
The beats and the pauses, which together creates music as they flow through time, is applicable to human lives also… or so the novelist seems to tell. For the actual protagonist of this novel is time: at once the ephemeral moment and the eternal ocean. Time, which can be measured only while it flows, and gets consumed in the measurement. Time the goon, destroying empires and civilisations in its relentless march; time the healer, healing any wound, however deep it may be.
Many of the characters in the story talk about the “movement from A to B”, while describing how their lives have changed (many a time in unexpected ways) as they progressed in life. But on the wider canvas of the novel, it is soon apparent to the reader that the movement is illusory: it has no meaning outside the mind of the person experiencing it. I have always asked this question to myself: will time exist if there are no changes happening in the universe, and no memory to record its passing? The question has always remained tantalisingly unanswered.
The novel starts with Sasha on a one-night stand with Alex in New York City: fittingly, it ends with Alex in New York, looking for Sasha. Of course he does not find her – as Bennie hopes, she has found a good life.
Alex closed his eyes and listened; a storefront gate sliding down. A dog barking hoarsely. The lowing of trucks over bridges. The velvety night in his ears. And the hum, always that hum, which maybe wasn’t an echo after all, but the sound of time passing.
th blu nyt
th stRs u cant c
th hum tht nevr gOs awy
A sound of clicking heels on the pavement punctured the quiet. Alex snapped open his eyes, and he and Bennie both turned – whirled, really, peering for Sasha in the ashy dark. But it was another girl, young and new to the city, fiddling with her keys.
So time goes on.
Highly recommended, especially for those readers who enjoy the unconventional.