Friday, 13 January 2012

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

I picked this up by accident while looking for something completely different, but as with most of my serendipitous finds, I’m ever grateful for whatever thought process dragged me to the particular shelf in the library that is the home of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad.

The goon in question is time, forever beating on the interlinked characters in Egan’s novel which flits from late 70s California, to a dystopian New York in the 2020s. Chronological order is eschewed in favour of themes, her playful prose playing tag with ideas through the book. It begins with Sasha, PA to music mogul Bennie Salazar, who is seeking psychiatric treatment for her kleptomania. Each chapter is a separate vignette, seen through the eyes of another player: Bennie and his friends in a band called The Flaming Dildoes, listening to the Dead Kennedys and playing the punk clubs in San Francisco; Sasha’s friend Rob losing his mind at college in New York; her uncle Ted looking for her a few years earlier when she has run away to Naples...

Ted, a frustrated art history professor who dreams of writing something serious, but never seems to be able to, has been sent by his sister’s new husband to retrieve Sasha from whatever she’s got herself mixed up in and bring her back to the US. He spends each day in Naples wandering around museums, pointedly not looking for her, then going back and ringing his sister to report on his progress. The guilt, along with the realisation that his deliberate freezing of his desire for his wife has destroyed both her sanity and their marriage, is crushing:

After hanging up, Ted went to the minibar and dumped a vodka over ice. He brought drink and phone to the balcony and sat in a white plastic chair, looking down at the Via Partenope and the Bay of Naples.

Ted, in reality, is not much of a drinker:

He seldom drank; booze flung a curtain of exhaustion over his head, robbing him of the two precious hours he had each night – two, maybe three, after dinner with Susan and the boys – in which to think and write about art.

It’s best to put it all to one side, and get back to the serious matter of looking at great art. He sets off the next day to Museo Nazionale to see marbles of Orpheus & Eurydice. On his way back to the hotel, he wanders into the slums of Naples, and runs into Sasha.

It’s all a bit awkward, but he manages to persuade her to come out for supper that evening. She opens up a bit after a second glass of red wine, and they go on to a nightclub:

After a walk of many blocks, they reached a generic looking nightclub whose doorman waved them listlessly inside. By now it was midnight. “Friends of mine own this place,” Sasha said, leading the way into the tumult of bodies, fluorescent purple light, and a beat with all the variety of a jackhammer. Even Ted, no connoisseur of nightclubs, felt the tired familiarity of the scene, yet Sasha seemed enthralled. “Buy me a drink, Uncle Teddy, would you?” she said, pointing at a ghastly concoction at a nearby table. “Like that, with a little umbrella.”

I remember reading this with a palpable terror that something terrible was going to happen; would one of them make a pass at the other, would there be a fight with some of the criminals that she had befriended (we learn from an earlier part of the book that she has dabbled in thieving and prostitution while in Italy, although is this true?) What happens is more understated, but no less devastating:

Anxious, foggy from his own drink, Ted ordered a San Pellegrino at the bar. And only then, as he reached into his wallet and found it gone, did he realize that she’d robbed him.

The fact that Sasha eventually makes good of her life makes little difference. The deed is done, it’s part of her forever now. And even if it could be wiped away and forgotten, there’s still no escaping time’s Goon...

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