Fiction

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

NOTE: WRITTEN ON APRIL 26, 2016

And in that moment, the longing he’d felt for Sasha at last assumed a clear shape: Alex imagined walking into her apartment and finding himself still there–his young self, full of schemes and high standards, with nothing decided yet. The fantasy imbued him with careening hope.

Alex felt an ache in his eyes and throat. “I don’t know what happened to me,” he said, shaking his head. “I honestly don’t.”

Bennie glanced at him, a middle-aged man with chaotic silver hair and thoughtful eyes. “You grew up, Alex,” he said, “just like the rest of us.”

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.

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.

-Selections from pg. 339-340 of A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

_________________________________________________________________

What is this book about?

At first I thought it’s simply about life and people, in all their glorious shades of messiness; snapshots of humanity. A chapter focuses on a character or a group of related characters in a period of time in their lives; the next chapter hones in on a secondary character mentioned in the previous chapter but during a completely different period of time in their life, providing some sort of backstory glimpse into that character’s future. Many chapters feature insight into both past and future. Essentially, the book is a non-chronological scrapbook of the lives of multiple distantly related, very flawed, very human characters.

Take Sasha for example–the klepto who spent her late teenage years wandering around Asia and Europe, filching wallets and goods, scrubbing floors, sucking off older men, and when desperate, wiring her worried parents for more money in order to survive. Though she always retains at least a bit of her rebellious streak, she finally comes back to the States at 21 and starts studying Business and Music at NYU, where she befriends a very confused boy with self-destructive tendencies who soon dies in a drowning accident, and dates the boy she will marry and have two children with much later in her life, after she gets fired post many years of service as the assistant of a prominent music producer because of her klepto tendencies, and after many years of dating and sleeping with random guys–Alex, among them (they had one date when Alex first moves to New York. He annoys her, but they sleep together anyways). By the time she has had her family, Sasha has calmed down and become a responsible human being, a loving wife and mother.

Sasha’s story starts with a story told with her as the central character. She’s 35, still an assistant for Bennie at Sow’s Ear music production, in therapy seeking help for her kleptomania. The story describes an unmemorable first and only date with Alex. Many chapters later, Sasha’s story resurfaces in a chapter focusing on Rob, her college best friend who drowns. From Rob’s story, we get a glimpse of the college Sasha–less cynical and jaded, still full of hope. College Sasha scorns drugs, whereas the next glimpse of Sasha clearly does not. Via her uncle’s story of when he was sent to Italy to find a post-high school pre-college Sasha who has run away from home to wander around Asia and Europe, we get a glimpse of a wilder more reckless Sasha, stealing and sucking off older men to survive. And finally, through her daughter’s PowerPoint deck retelling, we get a vision of a tame Sasha–a loving wife and mother of two who teaches her children to love and appreciate music, but without all the sex and drugs and rock and roll (and stealing of her youth).

Sasha’s story was of one who slowly grows up (though not completely successfully). Many of the other characters do not.

When late in the book “goons” are finally mentioned–”Time’s a goon,” Bennie says to Scotty–I feel good that my analysis of the book is almost correct. The book is about time, specifically the lives of people across different periods of time in their lives and in society.
But the last chapter completely threw me off guard. It’s told from Alex’s point of view, set in the future. In the 2020s at least, 2030s more realistically. Whereas the other chapters seem to capture very real portraits of humanity, this one seems like satire on the way that society is moving: everyone is glued to their phones, babies especially (dependence on technology, short attention spans); babies become the next most important target audience (the media is targeting increasingly younger demographics); bloggers are immensely powerful and shamelessly promote the opinions of whoever gives them money (the rise of bloggers and the ethics of sponsorships); words like “connect” and “transmit” are outdated (pace of technological advancement–transmission of information becoming increasingly instantaneous) and “identity” and “friend” are rendered meaningless (falsity of social media); texting language changes, curse words disappear from the vocabulary, and tattoos and piercings fall out fashion (generational fads–the self-righteousness of newer generations)–the satire is endless. This chapter seems like the only overt commentary on society; everything else seems to be more about the self-destructive choices that we make (so there’s some other chapters that can be construed as commentary, for example the one centering on La Doll/Dolly and her far-fetched experience trying to make money after her fall from grace, but this one is more rooted in reality than in a futuristic society obviously satirizing society today). But I suppose even through the satire, Alex’s story is still very relatable and rooted in the human experience of going back on your morals to get ahead, and longing for the past when everything was still before you–hope, not cynicism on the way the world worked. And that’s ultimately what this book is about. Loss of the starry eyed hope of youth.

Advertisements

The Bling Ring (Sofia Coppola, USA, 2013)

My immediate reaction to Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring was that it was a silly and superficial film. Underneath its stylish veneer – the absence of sound during some scenes, the use of slow motion during others – the movie was nothing more than an amalgam of  party scenes, nightclub scenes, beach scenes, closet scenes, and celebrity home break-in scenes. Designer names made up a good 1/3 of the dialogue, celebrity names another 1/3, and “Marc, chill out” the final third, while the images were dominated by racks of clothes, shoes, and jewelry, garish furniture, shiny cars, and cocaine. Basically, the film pandered to today’s viewers’ attraction to the glitzy and glamorous LA lifestyle, a thought which is only further supported by the addition of Emma Watson to the otherwise little-known cast. Aside from Ms. Watson’s ability to attract a large, young audience for the film, and her ability to look gorgeous in a range of designer duds, the choice of Ms. Watson for the role of Nicki Moore, one of the principal characters in the film, seems inexplicable because of Ms. Watson’s struggle in reproducing an American accent. Now I’m not saying that I’m any better at assuming an English accent than Ms. Watson is at an American one, but I’m not the one who has been cast as an American several times now.

But in retrospect, I realize I dismissed Ms. Coppola’s film as shallow without considering that the superficiality of the Bling Ring, the real-life gang of celebrity-obsessed teens who burglarized celebrity homes for designer clothes, cash, and drugs, was exactly what Ms. Coppola sought to capture in her film. The heavy sensation of grossness I felt after watching the movie – the same feeling I get after cooping up on the couch all day watching reruns of Friends while tearing through containers of Christmas cookies, or from watching a bad rom-com on Oxygen channel on a lazy Saturday afternoon – basically, the feeling of purely hedonistic indulgence – was, perhaps, intentional: Coppola’s reminder to her youthful audience that the superficiality, the greed, the celebrity obsession demonstrated by the beautiful youths on the screen is utterly unproductive and frankly pathetic. And while Ms. Watson’s American accent was kind of distractingly exaggerated, it actually ultimately worked. The overly-girlish, self-conscious softness in Watson’s accent accentuated the self-absorption and ignorance existing in the Nicki character, completing the picture of just how shallow these teenagers really were, though I still prefer the less exaggerated (but definitely not understated) performances of Claire Julien as the edgy Chloe and Taissa Farmiga as Nicki’s giggly sidekick Sam.

I originally dismissed The Bling Ring because it failed to explain the likely troubled home lives of many of these teens, but I see now that I was missing the point. While these kids may (or may not) have come from troubled backgrounds, The Bling Ring explains that ultimately, they were produced by today’s avaricious, attention-seeking, celebrity-worshipping society. The saddest testament to this valueless and unproductive society that Coppola identifies is that the member of the Bling Ring on whom Watson’s character is based got her own reality TV show as her criminal trial was unfolding. Instead of punishing an individual who broke into homes and stole in order to fuel her hedonistic lifestyle, this moral-less society rewarded her with attention, further blurring the lines between right and wrong.