This is the second of two posts about Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad
Yesterday I mentioned that Egan’s novel lacked moments of joy as if it were a critique. Now, of course, the experience of joy is just one of many emotions that come upon us in life, and it’s no artist’s obligation to depict every feeling in every work (“I don’t like Radiohead because they never just, like, chill out.”). So is it fair for me to (sort of) mark her down for failing at something she didn’t really attempt? Perhaps not, but while I’m here I might as well make another possibly unfair attack, which is the way she deals with the value of art. Goon Squad is a book about a constellation of people involved in punk rock written by someone who seems to despise punk and everything it stands for. Now, contempt is not always a barrier to understanding (see the poisonous attitude the Sopranos had towards its characters; unsurprisingly that show greatly influenced Egan’s work on Goon Squad), and in many ways Egan’s opposition to the “never-grow-old” theme of punk does a fantastic job of illuminating the essence of the genre. By setting the bulk of her story after the end of punk, she draws out the sterile echo of the electric Fuck-You punk screams at death. Who’s to judge hers as an unfair attitude to take towards such music?
Indeed, Egan seems to lump music in nihilistically with the whole pile of vanities, trivialities, and general bad shit that her characters misguidedly cling to. For Bennie, music is just a way of reliving his mediocre high-school band (same with Scottie, I think). Lou likes it because it keeps him around young people. Rhea (a young person) mostly wants the excuse to hide because “how can anyone call me ‘the girl with freckles’ when my hair is green?”. When we see the much-talked about band Conduit (who made Bennie’s career) in concert, the character’s attention is elsewhere, Rob (chapter 10, 2nd person) simply notices the feel of lead-singer Bosco’s flinty, crowd-surfing back as the rest of his life crumples in around him.
I can think of really just four moments in the book where we see art’s potency: in the first, the anger of the crowd at a Flaming Dildos concert feeds back into Scotty’s furious performance, creating an electric screech of disappointment and nihilism; years hence, a late-period, sagging Bosco explains his idea for a “Suicide Tour” to the dissatisfied housewife who doubles as his publicist (chapter 7). It’s a comeback where his on-stage antics will inevitably lead his cancerous body to collapse and kill him; – the novelty of the idea sends an unhappy charge through her as she recognizes its immediate appeal while struggling to be repulsed by it; my favorite potent moment describes a “slightly-autistic” thirteen year-old’s loving catalogue of the silences within different songs (“The pause makes you think the song will end. And then the song isn’t really over, so you’re relieved. But then the song does actually end, because every song ends, obviously, and THAT. TIME. THE. END. IS. FOR. REAL.”) – songs becoming just the beat that reminds us we’re still alive and that that’s something.
The book ends with the final such moment: a concert that was conceived impurely, its audience summoned through corporate tricks to see music meant to appeal to infants. Nevertheless, the music, its artist shaky and in declining years (as if he ever had lofty years from which to fall), broadcasts a signal to which the audience is tuned: “And it may be that a crowd at a particular moment of history creates the object to justify its gathering…. Or it may be that two generations of war and surveillance had left people craving the embodiment of their own unease in the form of a lone, unsteady man on a slide guitar…. Gazing … with the rhapsodic joy of a generation finally descrying someone worthy of its veneration.”
Here we see most clearly the meaning of art according to Egan the artist. Whereas writers so often romanticize art itself as hallowed, as providing meaning and beauty in a world with too little of it, to Egan, art simply extracts more purely ore from the world as it is. Purifying the essence of the world to make it visible fails to render it more pure, not truly: it’s just the same shit as life, this time in a more obvious shape. While most artists pride the quest for artistic success as inherently dignified, as more heroic than the pursuits of others, to Egan, it’s just another vanity, another way to forget the ticking clock you can’t ignore grinding away at the base of your spine. Art isn’t some universal end, some capital word Truth or Beauty. it’s just the same as everything else, only moreso.