Chasing Narrative: Jennifer Egan’s Sometimes Non-Linear Take on Time, Age, and Technology

High school didn’t leave much time for movies.  Maybe that’s not entirely true; movies were there and time for them existed, but the level of analysis one marshals as a college freshman or high school student probably lacks the kind of insight more seasoned individuals can bring to the table. In other words, it’s hard to say how much adolescents attend to issues like structure, perspective, or the relationship between audience and the art; those heady thoughts tend to come much later as successive waves of pop culture and literary canons continually crest and recede.  But it was 1994 when Pulp Fiction first introduced a new generation to the complex marriage between the visual, the emotional, and what is written on the page.  At the time many considered Forrest Gump to be the epitome of cinema; in this regard, Pulp Fiction didn’t just blow the minds of “Generation X”, it scrambled them.  By fucking with the timeline, skewing perspective, and drawing upon Asian and Blacksploitation cinema, Tarantino proved that a dozen people can look at the world and see a dozen different things.  While he wasn’t the first to do this, the experience of seeing his movies came to mind while reading Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and The Keep.  In both novels, the reader is careened between varying points of view and perspective and, in the case of Goon Squad, jumped around in no particular chronological order.  With each new chapter, a new hedge-maze of time becomes multi-dimensional; each plot point takes on new meaning as each character becomes more real.  While The Keep and Goon Squad are different in form and scope, both share a weirdly brilliant and roundabout way of storytelling even Tarantino can admire.

The Keep consists of three characters: a third person protagonist named Danny who is helping renovate a castle and his cousin, Howie, a reclusive millionaire trying to turn the dilapidated castle into a hotel.  Best to leave the identity of the third character a secret, lest such a revelation spoil the book.  One can say that said mystery character is alternately telling the tale via first person albeit a different time and place.  Each of these characters experience major identity shifts; Danny begins as a high school jock that finds subculture only to spend the next 17 years disappointing his parents by becoming a Manhattan club-rat.  In contrast, Howie was wildly unpopular and introverted but by their re-union, his financial success lets him retire at 35, a fit bronzed blonde beau.

Likewise, A Visit from the Goon Squad hosts many characters shown at different points in life through seemingly unconnected short story-like sections.  The rock god of chapter one, Bennie Salazar, has become a swollen aged boomer in the next, desperate to retain a sense of specialness so much so that he puts gold flecks in his coffee under the guise that it helps his libido.  Time, “the Goon” has ravaged it, and he literally tries to connect to his former self by ingesting the one commodity he still had: wealth.  While the characters of The Keep run away from their former selves, Goon Squad players anxiously try to recapture their sense of identity or, like Sasha, create one through random acts of kleptomania.  It becomes enduring that Egan explores the human instinct to have a “picture” of selfhood, and idea we cling to as a notion of who we are; even the brightest among us (and the Goon Squad) are foolish to believe that the rest of the world sees us as we see ourselves.  In fact, what other people think of us is none of our business.

Iggy didn’t wear a shirt the entire 70s

Gracefully Aging or Just Aging

“He was just wild looking – staring into the crowd and going ‘Fuck you!  Fuck you! Then the Stooges launched into one of their songs, and the next thing you know Iggy was diving off the stage onto the concrete, and cutting himself up with a broken guitar. It wasn’t theatrical; it was theater.  Alice Cooper was theatrical … but with Iggy, this was not acting.  It was the real thing . . . Do you know what I’m thinking man? It changed my life because it made realize everything I was doing was bullshit.” — Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, 68

When does a fake Mohawk become a real Mohawk? Who decides? How do you know if it’s happened?” – A Visit from the Goon Squad, 40

Does Iggy Pop age? When he reemerged with the Stooges in 2003 touting a new album and going out on tour, critics hailed his return.  Writing in the New York Times critic Ben Ratliff summarized Pop’s twisted charisma. “Try to take your eyes off him. How he re-enacts fear, rage, sex, abject boredom, universal love and lethal cynicism, while dancing with originality, remembering lyrics and maintaining the delicate middle-state between having pants on and not having pants on, is why he is he, and you are merely you.”  In an age of sleeper cells, alienating social media, and pulsating 24-hour news networks, Pop’s brand of unvarnished threat struck a chord with critics, much as it did David Bowie and others in the 1960s and 1970s. Iggy was the real thing then and was the real thing now. Time passed but Iggy remained dangerous, “grotesque and pretty” all at once.  The punk rocker seemed immune physically and psychologically from the Gestapo antics of age.  Pop exists as an animalistic noble savage, a throw back to our analog days of yore, like the truth of vinyl records in the age of mp3s.

In Goon Squad, Egan employs Pop as litmus test for the ravages of time. Emerging periodically in the conversations of characters, Pop operates as a sort of contextual and atmospheric backdrop.    When former punk rock guitarist of the fictional Conduits, Bosco appears midway through the novel, Pop serves as the best possible comparison demonstrating the difference between past and present.  “Bosco was unrecognizable as the scrawny, stovepipe-panted practitioner of late eighties sound somewhere between punk and ska,” recalls Stephanie Salazar, one of Egan’s several interlocking characters.  “[A] hive of readheaded mania who had made Iggy Popp look indolent on stage.  More than once, club owners had called 911 during Conduits shows, convinced Bosco was having a seizure.” (125) However in the cold light of the twenty first century, Bosco had ballooned on a diet of pain medication and Breyer’s Rocky Road Ice Cream.  Pushing for one last tour for his new album A to B, Bosco summarizes the effects of the decades that had followed his brush with fame, “This is reality right?  You don’t look good anymore twenty years later … Time’s a goon, right?” (127)

In the aforementioned The Keep, Egan addressed similar themes as her protagonist wrestled over unsettling past and the disillusion of his present. In Good Squad, Egan offers readers a brighter, if still somewhat somber conclusion, than found in previous novel.  Though many of Egan’s characters stumble in Good Squad, several of them find ways to accept the passage of time and engage with the present. Even the obese Bosco finds salvation in the end, but perhaps not in the expected manner.

Message received?

Ancient Greek Silicon Valley

 The Medium is the Message.

– Marshal McLuhan

In his 1964 classic, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Marshal McLuhan coined this famous comment (and yes perhaps overused, Mad Men even gave it a shout out once) on man’s relation to media, not only in terms of content but the characteristics of the medium itself. For example, as has been debated by ToM’s Alex Cummings and others elsewhere, the shift to digital media, notably mp3s and file sharing has completely reshaped the music industry, music, and our relationship to both. The gnashing of teeth over the Emily White/David Lowery kerfuffle provides one example. The Keep and Goon Squad provide another as they both examine the relationship between technology and the mind.  Throughout each technology, memory, and time interact in ways that redefine experience, authenticity, and reality.  In The Keep, Danny and Howie bond through a mind game called “Terminal Zeus.”  The two youngsters play a hero (Zeus) and concoct missions to overcome and monsters to vanquish.  Thirty years later, Howie is obsessed with his castle/hotel being completely free of technology; he feels being totally unplugged would help guests tap into an undefined connection, magic so ethereal that he can’t put into words other than a personal version of “Terminal Zeus.”  As a person who suffers separation anxiety when away from a phone, Danny is horrified.  He spends the first day at the castle obsessing over the best placement for his satellite, and lamenting missed emails and text messages. Without a technological connection, Danny fears a disappearing selfhood.  And yet, the moment the satellite dish meets its demise, he begins to see things in the castle on a level that even Howie can’t: Danny is back in Terminal Zeus.

In Goon Squad, technology has obliterated (literally) the line between the real and unreal.  Another character, Alex makes a living as a “twitter ghost” for celebrities.  Though a nebulous, undefined, and barely visible profession, being a “twitter ghost” gave much more of Alex away than he ever intended: “[H]e never could quite forget that every byte of information he’d posted online (favorite color, vegetable, sexual position) was stored in the databases of multinationals who swore they would never, ever use it — that he was owned, in other words, having sold himself unthinkingly at the very point in his life when he’d felt most subversive” (318).  Another character’s story is told as a powerpoint presentation.  Technology not only dictates lives, it rearranges and organizes it; one might read the “powerpoint” with ease now, but ten years ago it might have taken a while to sort out its data.

Egan doesn’t settle on either side of the debate.  She doesn’t condemn or judge her characters, merely uses her unique style and structure to give a complete look into who they are.   Without spoiling either novel, it remains essential to emphasize how both books, once led through the mind-boggling process of knowing and re-knowing these characters, pulls the rug from under the reader, forcing a challenge to perspective and assumption about how we read. Was it a ride through real life, or simply a good bill of sale?  If this review falls too far on the side of praise and hyperbole, it’s because experiences like this are rare; like Pulp Fiction, Egan unwinds and rewinds the experience of stories.

Amy Heishman and Ryan Reft