AS WE used to say back in the day, I was on the “late freight.” I just got finished powering through Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. As it turns out, I think, the timing worked out. Although, like most of the characters who populate Egan’s novel, I’d prefer to be ahead of — (or not-even-considering) the curve, but time got away from me and then Egan won the Pulitzer and well, that news pushed my hand.
After just a few pages in, I realized, if I hadn’t found this book on my own, undoubtedly it would have found me. It sounds like people I’ve known or will know. It feels like experiences I’ve had or will or hear told of. It has the quality of urgent conversation, one that’s happening, right over there, next to you right now. It’s set in cities I’ve wandered through and/or lived in, in the decades I came of age in — 70s and 80s into the 90s — and with a backdrop of music that soared out tower stereo speakers, chugged out of open car windows, as we zoomed about, more times than not, destination-less, frequently under the cover of night. Egan evokes a jangly sense of restlessness that I don’t often read described so well: living in the present is never really living in the present — the future is something we’re all preening for, worried about, already in conversation with…It’s a book about living but a book about how we walk side-by-side with loss and our potential for it everyday.
What most struck me is how time functions in this book — in our present-tense we inhabit our past. There are many moments where a there’s an in-the-moment epiphany that this moment will be defining, a crossroads, a dividing line between youth and age:
“You sat together at the river’s edge, looking out, the last patches of old snow piled at your feet. “Look at the that water,” Drew says. “i wish I could swim in it.” After a minute he says, “Let’s remember this day even when we don’t know each other anymore.”
You look over at Drew, squinting in the sun, and for a second the future tunnels out and away, some version of ‘you” at the end of it, looking back. And right then you feel it — what you’ve seen in people’s faces on the street — a swell of movement, like an undertow, rushing you toward something you can’t quite see.
“Oh, we’ll know each other forever, Bix says. The days of losing touch are almost gone.”
What happens when past and present share the same space? It might have been an outlandish thought, something out of Vonnegut or the province of speculative fiction, but now, so many of us with a growing rucksack of memory we carry around and call a “past,” who have found ourselves gingerly crossing the threshold into social media, have had to consider this very strange configuration. Now we stare into a screen that creates a strange overlay of our lives: it’s disorienting to look at sandbox playmates next to the current wives of former boyfriends whose faces show up right next to your current workplace crew. There was a time when more likely your past remained your past, tucked in some sort of memory pocket or top-shelf brain-closet reverie, But now, with with so many places for the past to rub up against the present, will the past really be the past anymore, if we can check on it in real-time present? Can we truly be reflective about any person or event if we don’t ever have the time and space away from it, if they or it never leave. Past meant something then, now, as Egan weaves throughout her book, the “past” or absence works simply as a “pause.” — of varying lengths.
Toggling between two different collective anxieties — San Francisco’s 80s punk scene and millennial NYC’s post-911 watchfulness (with an L.A. dalliance wedged in between), Egan’s characters — former musicians, music executives, P.R., flacks, lost souls, marooned ex-wives, emotionally evacuated children — try to build dreams on marshy foundations of the present. Egan’s sweep is larger, funky social-psycolgoy that takes us from the Me-Generation Reagan Decade, to some outpost in the not-too-distant future where digital convenience has left us unable to communicate deeply — speaking actual words exhaust us, better to “T” one another — a not-so-distant future shorthand for “txting” of our present. What are we left with?
That’s for us to locate.
Egan’s “goon,” the relentless thug, is time — and death — the tick-tock of a clock. As years shave away, we shave off expectations, regroup and reconfigure the list of what we thought life meant or was for. By telescoping and bending time, Egan chillingly underscores (without having to voice any of the cliches outright) that time is short, of the essence, that life thunders forward in a cruel blink. And while life is full of those character-shaping, heart-in-your throat turns in the road — those defining moments, no one, but no one, escapes that last lap, that leap you take on your own.