Soundtrack for Visit From the Goon Squad.

Chauncey Mabe

Jennifer Egan’s novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad,” is an earworm of a book. Once you’ve read one of its tracks—er, I mean stories—er, chapters—it’s as hard to shake out of your head as a commercial jingle recalled from childhood or the latest predigested, autotuned, Dr Luke-produced hit by Rhiannon-Nicki-Miley-Katie-Kesha. That’s why I’ve chosen to look at music patterns, as opposed to “musical patterns,” among the wealth of other patterns, complex and simple, Egan has woven into her narrative, or, perhaps, constructed it from. I almost overlooked music as a source of patterns for this assignment, and the reason for that merely underscores Egan’s genius with this novel. Note: When I say “genius,” I don’t necessarily propose the author plotted every pattern and every effect/affect on a graph. While she’s evidently in command of the general direction of each character and plot and the smart devices at work in each section, surely many of the most telling elements are what might be called epiphenomena of her creative process. That is to say, they arise by chance during the composition of the individual story, or of the novel as a whole, and yet, because Egan is a gifted fictionalist working at the top of her powers, they fit nicely into the designed elements. But I digress.

The reason I almost overlooked the topic musical patterns is that music has become so ubiquitous in First World societies that it has, like water for fish, virtually disappeared for us. It is all Muzak now. I have heard Wilco in the supermarket, Adele in the French bakery, Metallica at the baseball game. The latest pop hits (and the next ones) sell clothes, shoes, cars, and beer on television. Soldiers, I was astonished to learn, go into battle with Death Metal blasting in their tanks and armored vehicles—would you really want to be ushered into the afterlife by Necrophagia?

Combine that with the extreme personalization made possible by music streaming sites, and music has never been more trivial or more important than it its today. As a result of these and other factors, the element of music recedes into the background of A Visit From the Goon Squad, becoming something we can take for granted, like the setting on planet earth, or the contemporary time frame, or the paper on which it is printed and the ink that forms the letters and words.

Once we shake our heads so as to clear the trees from the forest, the importance of music to Egan’s project comes instantly into focus. It is not just a background against which the story is set, or a shorthand device to denote time and place, the way Anne Beatty famously references brand names. It is a stratagem as well as a theme, central to Egan’s project of interrogating time, communication, meaning, technology, and the human spirit. More is to come in this vein after we consider some examples from the book. Despite what I said in the preceding paragraph, A Visit From the Goon Squad is indeed set against the punk, post-punk, and—what should we call today’s music scene? Candy apple?—the Candy Apple era of the 21st century. Of course, then, musical patterns run through this book like marbling in a Texas sirloin. I’m going to look at a few, including, I hope, some of the less obvious.

Pages 5-6: The first mention of music that I see comes when Sasha repeats anecdotes to her date, Alex, about her old boss, Bennie Salazar, founder of a famed indie record company. Soon follows, an exchange with Cos, her shrink, that intrudes into the narrative of as Sasha leaves the bar with Alex, an exchange with Cos, and she imagines that together with the doctor she will get well, stop stealing from people, and starting caring again about the things “that had once guided her,” foremost among which is music. This is the first, subtle indication of the centrality of music for the characters and stories to come—although it is of interest, given the spare but clear scene-setting, that Egan makes no mention of the bar music, or the music piped into the ladies room, or the melodies that almost surely would have been coming from the ceiling of the hotel lobby. But there is the list of Sasha’s goals, the first of which is “Find a band to manage.”

Page 23: Bennie bemoans the digitization of music, which he sees as sucking the life out of everything. “An aesthetic holocaust!”

Page 46: The “Ask Me If I Care” chapter is, like many, replete with music references. But this one stands out: “One thing I’ve noticed: No punk rockers have freckles.”

Page 61: Rock music rebellion may be Lou’s business, but his most conventional instincts are stirred up by the impromptu music and dancing of the Samburu warriors.

Page 165: At the end of Dolly’s story, after everything has turned out all right for everyone, including Kitty (an actress and a jockey!) and the General, Dolly and Lulu eat star fruit in the evening while the radio plays.

Page 244-309: Lincoln’s obsession with pauses in pop songs.

I’ve heard it said, usually by musicians, that music may have preceded speech in the evolution of human consciousness. After all, nothing is more primordial than rhythm. Think of the rhythmic susurration of a calm sea breaking upon a beach, or the regular time-keeping of the human heart beat, or that great cymbal-crash of the Big Bang, the echo of which astronomers have detected reverberating through the universe. Love of music, desire for the musical, certainly seems to be a primary drive in the human psyche. Even (or especially) poetry can been seen as a way to satisfy the hunger for music, the music of language. In poetry, in the beginning was the Word holds hands with the Bang! of creation.

Thus, in these examples, we see the most basic pattern of what music means and does for people, which is to say: everything. Music accompanies our aspirations, as with Sasha in New York. It also affirms a sense of rejection and unworthiness, a sort of aural velvet rope, as it does for Rhea. Music, like all magic, is likely as not to turn on its practitioner without warning. The powerful producer and A&R man Lou doesn’t seem to even be aware that his confrontation with his teen daughter Charlie is accompanied by the very music, tribal and rhythmic, that provides the central ingredient of rock ‘n’ roll, which otherwise would remain country or folk or whatever. Because of the ubiquity of music, it has become an often unheard soundtrack to our “real” lives, as though we were all in our personal versions of The Truman Show. Thus the music from Dolly’s radio, in the mother-daughter idyll of life in small-town upstate New York, accompanies their happiest, most mysterious bonding moments. Finally, Lincoln, the high-functioning autistic son of Sasha and Drew finds his magic in what his father might think of as non-music, the pauses found in many rock and R&B songs (for the record, they can be found in country music, too). But Lincoln’s Mom and sister (and readers, too), recognize the musicality of these momentary silences, which, when looped together into an extended yet varied silence, a series of pauses from different tunes, takes on a quality not unlike what may be felt in an empty church.

In numerous interviews around the time Good Squad won the Pulitzer Prize, Egan avowed that she had no intention of writing a “rock ‘n’ roll” novel when she began the first story, “Found Objects.” Yet, as she moved from Sasha’s story to Benny’s, in part to find out who was this fellow Sasha had mentioned in passing, she recognized that music had become an “independent goal” of the work she was writing. “When that is happening, it means that something is organically necessary.,” she told in 2011. “And the organically necessary things are always the ones that work the best.” I must add, however, that critics and music writers have had a field day, extolling the songs mentioned in the book, or compiling their ideas of tunes for a soundtrack. Egan has even done this herself, which her publisher has posted to 8tracks, a music-streaming service. No surprise, it features songs with pauses—“Young Americans,” David Bowie; “Supervixen,” Garbage; “Do You Wanna Dance,” Beach Boys; “Long Train Runnin,’” Dooby Brothers; “Time of the Season,” Zombies; as well as tunes by The Who, Death Cab for Cutie, Massive Attack, and David Gray.

Perhaps that explains why Egan’s use of rock music in this book is so much more successful that that of either Jonathan Lethem, in You Don’t Love Me Yet (2007), or Jonathan Franzen in the vastly overrated Freedom (2010). In both of these novels, the music sections come off as awkward, like a middle-aged white man on a hip-hop dance floor. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, they both valorize rock music, and I think they do it unconsciously, which, oddly, makes their approach to it self-conscious. It’s as though somewhere they still harbor those fan boy rock star fantasies. Second, they seem to have relied too much on imagination, on what they’ve absorbed swimming in the musical culture. Unlike Egan, they seem to have done no research to undergird the musical parts of their books. Finally, they do not understand, as Egan clearly does, that in fiction music, both its performance, and the immediate affect it inspires in hearers and dancers, is like sex. It is like sex in that it resists being written about directly. Just as good writers compose their worst passages when trying to capture and convey the ineffable sublimity of sex (winners of The Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award include Melvyn Bragg, Sebastian Faulk, Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, and David Guterson), so Lethem and Franzen founder when trying their hardest to write explicitly about performing music. Egan avoids this pitfall (not to say, pratfall), by writing around the experience of music, of writing of its effects rather than its affects. Like certain stars in the night sky, some human experiences cannot be seen if looked at directly. Egan knows this.

Exam questions: 1. The primary sentence in the entire novel is Scotty’s assertion, “Time’s a goon.” What does time mean to Scotty, to the other characters, and does Egan signal her own message about time? (Maybe that’s a long essay question.)

  1. Does Lou change over the course of the three chapters that take him from robust midlife to his deathbed?

  2. An almost unstated theme of authenticity, or perhaps hunger for authenticity, runs through this book. Using the time frame of the stories, 1980s to the near future, has technological change endangered authenticity, or made it harder to find?