Jennifer Egan’s novel A Visit from the Goon Squad discusses, among other things, the passage of time, the dangers of obsolescence, and the way cultures grow and change as the years go on. Egan approaches the social trends and fads of American culture in A Visit from the Goon Squad with a jaundiced eye, allowing readers to understand the fleeting and often ignored nature of very serious problems in favor of trivia and pop culture. In the stories “Great Rock and Roll Pauses,” “Pure Language,” and “Black Box,” the environment of the Earth, as well as its culture, is shown to change for the worse, showing the world gradually getting to a very dark place by the novel’s proposed future of 2020. Egan’s novel shows a somewhat dystopian setting that is incredibly believable, given the current political trends and environmental concerns that plague us now, making A Visit from the Goon Squad a strangely and enticingly prophetic story.
Perhaps one of the most fascinating and innovative stories in the book, “Great Rock and Roll Pauses” allows the reader to extrapolate from current cultural obsessions with rock music, technology and the increasing independence and autonomy of family members, particularly children, in the family unit. The story takes the form of a PowerPoint presentation made by Allison, the daughter of Sasha, Bennie Salazar’s assistant, detailing mostly her relationship with her parents and her brother Lincoln, who obsesses over the pauses in songs. First, the form of the chapter itself is a glimpse into the concerns of its narrator; the PowerPoint presentation offers the information Allison is attempting to convey in an efficient, graphics-based way. By offering this decidedly modern presentation method commonly used in corny business meetings and amateurish school presentations, Egan shows her readers that aspect of Allison’s character that has trouble expressing herself, and needs a more modern way to do it.
Through this method, Allison is trying to show through shapes and different text box arrangements the most effective method of getting across that she has a contentious relationship with her family. For example, she showcases her frustration with Lincoln’s overly awkward and technical expressions of affection in a slide called “Lincoln Wants to Say/Ends Up Saying,” in which a series of boxes takes the simple phrase “I love you, Dad,” to the complicated, “Hey Dad, there’s a partial silence at the end of ‘Fly Like an Eagle,’ with a sort of rushing sound in the background that I think is supposed to be the wind, or maybe time rushing past!” (Egan 127). Here, Allison is expressing a satirical frustration with Lincoln’s haphazard attempts to relate to his father through the language of music, which he parses primarily through the pauses.
Of particular interest in this chapter is the final section, “The Desert,” in which things like global warming and climate change are heavily alluded to – all things which are current anxieties even today. The first slide of this section is titled, “It Starts Where Our Lawn Used to Be,” indicating a dramatic environmental change in which their happy home is surrounded by dry desert (Egan 146). Here, the idea of pauses is connected with this idea of environmental decay: “The whole desert is a pause” (146). In essence, the state of the Earth echoes the dry, uncommunicative state of Allison’s family, in which no one communicates with each other except through angry resentment or projected obsessions with other things as means of reaching out to others (like Linc’s pauses to his dad). They walk through their old golf course, Dad reminiscing over being able to play there once, and they wander through the desert alone, indicating few other people in what used to be a populated area. This chapter solidifies the presence of a major environmental catastrophe and climate change, which is one major concern right now with the threat of global warming; this chapter shows the potential effects of that catastrophe and how it would mirror the trials of a dysfunctional family.
It is when the family reaches the solar panels from which they get their power in this dystopian, post-apocalyptic future that Egan’s most direct satire comes. Allison notes that the solar panels “look evilbut they’re actually mending the Earth,” and mentions the protests that occurred years ago when they were built: “Their shade made a lot of desert creatures homeless. But at least they can live where all the lawns and golf courses used to be” (Egan 148). Here, she alludes to the hand-wringing that currently exists over alternative energy sources, the worries about environmental effects on biodiversity in the creation of these methods, and so on. By focusing on the micro-level of Allison’s family relationships against the macro-level backdrop of an environmentally savaged Earth, Egan shows the dysfunctional effect humans have on everything they touch.
While “Pure Language” doesn’t specifically deal with environmental catastrophe, Egan injects this story with extrapolated anxieties about marketing, capitalism, the Internet and youth identity in a way that is very prescient considering our current concerns with net neutrality, online personas, ‘viral’ videos and the like. Even today, youth is fetishized as people do more and more things at younger ages – this is echoed both in Bennie’s increased obsolescence as a middle-aged former rock star, and the seeming use of babies to determine the next hit rock sensation: “Fifteen years of war had ended with a baby boom, and these babies had not only revived a dead industry but become the arbiters of musical success” (Egan 159). By having the throughline of babies rediscovering Bennie’s music and starting to talk about him to make him go ‘viral,’ we see the inherent silliness of the recycling of pop culture by new generations who make it all new again.
The blogging/viral marketing Internet culture, already a huge phenomenon even today, is taken to ridiculous, dystopian extremes and commented on in this chapter through the strategizing of communication. Political blogs have already become the new paid voices of vested interests: “Even the financial disclosure statements that political bloggers were required to post hadn’t stemmed the suspicion that people’s opinions weren’t really their own” (Egan 160). Alex attempts to fulfill a marketing goal by categorizing his friends in terms of their “Need, Reach, and Corruptibility” if he were to ask them to shill something (Egan 161). The appropriation of what is ostensibly ‘free’ by moneyed interests is something that already happens through sponsored blog posts on places like Gawker, but Alex comes to these realizations sadly on his own: “he was owned, in other words, having sold himself unthinkingly at the very point in his life when he’d felt most subversive” (Egan 162). Egan shows the end result of the increasingly blog-centric culture – eventually, the money finds its way to even those with a free voice.
The politicizing of language in order to selfishly meet certain ends is also evident in this chapter. Lulu speaks to Alex during their meeting about the loss and changing of language – how words like “connect” and “transmit” have been used or changed so much to have lost their meaning (Egan 161). Phrases like “atavistic purism” and “ethical ambivalence” are also used to micro-manage the usage of language in order to suit the ends of capitalists who want to make people stop feeling guilty for buying or being commodities themselves (Egan 163).
The constant use of text-speak, placed right next to the baby-speak uttered by the infants in the beginning of the chapter shows a continued breakdown in language that is feared even today – the breakdown of vocabulary in text messages and increase in metaphors seemingly robs language of its meaning. Everyone has to talk in code in order to obfuscate meaning: “All we’ve got are metaphors, and they’re never exactly right. You can’t ever just Say. The. Thing” (Egan 164). This chapter, in exploring all of these things, shows just how worried we are about couching our feelings in the appropriate, cleared language drenched in just enough irony to make it acceptable, and showing how our language environment may simply hide our greater truths about ourselves.
These ideas of communication, war, and environmental disaster come to a head in “Black Box,” in which a series of tweets recounts the experience of leaving your physical body and the sensations that occur as a result. Lulu, the volunteer spy who records every experience she has in order to collect information for her peers, is the ultimate objectification and transmission of a person across electronic media, particularly women. In Lulu’s experiences, her attempts to seduce her targets are read from a distance, allowing us to see the dangers of what she is doing and giving us a glimpse into a woman’s fear and disgust when she is in a non-consenting sexual experience. However, she is able to mask it through our generation’s “notorious narcissism,” which echoes the self-absorption that comes with always knowing one has an audience (Egan 179). As Lulu knows that all of her information is being collected, her ability to dissociate in order to endure these ugly experiences is termed the “new heroism” (Egan 179). In this way, the aforementioned fears of language and experience losing its meaning is taken to its logical conclusion – even people become receptacles for recording and dissemination of information.
Through these three final chapters of the book, A Visit from the Goon Squad amplifies existing fears about communication, the environment, espionage, commerce and identity into satirical future scenarios. “Great Rock and Roll Pauses” addresses the modern usage of PowerPoint, our fears about global warming, our inability to relate to our parents except through esoteric interests, and so on. “Pure Language” shows the degradation of language in the face of corporate synergy and professional blogging, illustrating our obsession with youth and political correctness. Finally, “Black Box” makes innovative use of Twitter micro-blogging to distill very disturbing experiences of loss of the self and recording of every waking thought and sensation into a poetic whole. By doing this, Egan shows the eventual proposed conclusions to be drawn from these cultural trends, leading to an increased sense of disconnection from language, our emotions, and even our own bodies.
Egan, Jennifer. A Visit from the Goon Squad. Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.