Childhood and the Goons

My literary analysis of A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, a novel I read for my college lit class.

Warning: Contains strong sexual themes, drug use, and a violent image. I would give it an R rating!

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan is a novel overflowing with an almost limitless supply of literary devices to discover: deeply thought out symbols, interesting metaphors, variegated points of view, multiple evergreen themes, varying writing styles (there’s even an entire chapter written completely as a PowerPoint presentation), well-drawn characters that are each somehow involved in the music industry (the book itself is even structured with the “Side A” and “Side B” of an old-time vinyl record album), settings in locations from all over the world and in several different decades…

The list could go on and on. 

It is one of the deepest modern literary works I’ve ever read. I glean something new every time I open up the covers.

If you enjoy the depth of high quality literary work, add this to your Read-Soon list. This essay merely scratches the surface of only one of the multitude of literary devices that could be examined – the theme of attitudes towards childhood.

 

Childhood and the Goons

Starlight shines softly through the misty evening. Captain Von Trapp, the former naval commander, and Maria, who will now never be a nun, stand in a romantic embrace nuzzling as they whisper-sing the song “Something Good” in each other’s ears:

“Nothing comes from nothing. Nothing ever could. So somewhere in my youth and childhood, I must have done something good.” (The Sound of Music. 1965)

The book A Visit from the Goon Squad has its own sound of music, all the way from its global setting to its vinyl-record-like structure. (Interview. 4:05) In it, Jennifer Egan does a masterful job of using character against the backdrop of the music industry to explore various attitudes towards youth and childhood. Youth and childhood ranges all the way from infancy to young adulthood, and she covers all the stages. As she develops the main character in each individual story, his or her attitude towards youth and childhood is examined. This offers illumination to the reader, and encourages them to examine themselves.

 

Sasha: Trapped in Childhood

In the book’s opening, we meet Sasha, a 35-year-old former assistant in the music industry. But she has a problem — she’s a kleptomaniac. Throughout Sasha’s story, Egan keeps bringing us back to the idea that she is trapped in childhood and can’t seem to escape, no matter how hard she tries, how much money she pays her therapist, or how badly she wants to be free of it.

One of the ways Egan shows Sasha as trapped in childhood is that, like a young child, she is unable to control her impulses. In the first scene of the book, she sees a “fat, green wallet” just begging to be taken while she puts on her yellow eyeshadow. (15) (It is also interesting to note how often the color yellow shows up as a symbol of life, youth, childhood, and vitality — either in its existence, or in it’s loss.) She argues with herself momentarily, but in the end, her rationalizations and thrill-seeking win out and she takes it. Later, when the plumber comes to investigate a leak under her bathtub, she see his orange-handled screwdriver tucked into the worn leather loop of his toolbelt and she feels herself “contract around the object in a single yawn of appetite.” (18) Again she succumbs to the temptation. In the climax of the story, she snoops through her date’s wallet and again yields to temptation when she steals a slip of paper out of it. Like a 4-year-old unable to resist taking a bright yellow ball from the toy store shelf, every time she feels an impulse to steal, rather than control it, she yields to it.

Sasha is also portrayed as childish in the whiny tone she often falls into. It comes through when she is in the middle of rationalizing her behavior: We live in a city where people will steal the hair off your head if you give them half a chance, but you leave your stuff lying in plain sight and expect it to be waiting for you when you come back? (15) It comes through when her therapist, Coz, questions her about the father that ran out on her when she was six: “‘I don’t remember him,’ she told Coz. ‘I have nothing to say.'” (19) It comes through when she begs the woman for mercy: “I just—please don’t tell. I’m hanging on by a thread.” (21) And it comes through when Coz pushes her to talk about her feelings: “I’m bankrupting myself to pay for you–obviously I get that this isn’t a great way to live.” (19) Her tone comes across so often like a petulant child insisting on her own way and throwing a tantrum when she doesn’t get it that it’s hard to see her as 35.

Another way Sasha acts childish is in the way she views the world. When the security guards show up, she sees them like a child would — as characters in an action TV show. (20) Babies see everything as candy, and Sasha sees the plumbers orange screwdriver “gleaming like a lollipop.” (18) Kids often want a toy just because someone else is playing with it, but as soon as they get it, they immediately lose interest in it. This is exactly what Sasha does with the screwdriver: When it’s in the plumber’s toolbelt, she wants it; once she has it, it becomes an ordinary thing, no longer special. (19) It has lost all its glamour.

Ms. Egan paints such a childish picture of Sasha that it causes her readers to treat Sasha as an antihero — we see things in her that we don’t want to be. We understand why she is the way she is — that the sense of loss created by her father’s disappearance led to her kleptomania — but we are inspired to find better ways of dealing with loss. On a positive note,  we do appreciate her perseverance and desire for change. As the minutes with Coz slip by, she stays, and we know that she will never quit, that sooner or later she will grow up, no matter how many minutes tick away. (26)

 

Bennie: Trying to Regain His Youth

Bennie is Sasha’s former boss and the founder of the Sow’s Ear record label. Though his childhood wasn’t necessarily bad — in fact it had some downright exciting times — many of his dreams went unfulfilled or didn’t bring him the satisfaction he was expecting, and it was replete with moments of shame that overshadowed the good. So, at 44 years old, he is trying again to pursue those dreams he once had, and to restore in himself a sense of hope and excitement.

One of the ways we see him trying to regain his youth is in his pursuit of the unfulfilled fantasies of his teens. He drives what many teenage boys consider a dream car — a yellow Porsche. (30) (There’s that yellow again.) He also doesn’t feel like he has ever been fully satisfied in his sex life. This is implied in the statement about his “half hard-on that had been his constant companion since the age of thirteen.” To try and get the sex drive of a teenage boy back, he’s using the Aztec folk cure for low libido of gold flakes in coffee. For a litmus test of how well it’s working he calls on the teen boy’s fascination with boobs by looking at Sasha’s breasts beneath a thin yellow sweater to see if he gets turned on. (29) (He doesn’t)

Another reason for Bennie’s midlife crisis is the loss of his youthful zeal for bands and music. He used to love it, listening to bands before he was even old enough to go to one of their concerts. (40) But he has become jaded. Now he hates the music industry, the industry he has given his life to. To him, music has become so compromised and digitized as to be lifeless and cold, mere husks of music. (29, 40) He wants the enthusiasm and passion back.

And he does find some hope that we can learn from. He experiences a brief moment of lust for Sasha while caught up in the throes of rapturous joy in the music of the sister group Stop/Go. (35)  But it is short-lived — as soon as the past once again rears its ugly head, the moment vanishes. He also finds value in his past when he uses his past embarrassments as cool-sounding song titles. (40) In Benny, we find comfort in knowing that we’re not the only ones going through a difficult time in the middle of our lives. At the end of the chapter, Sasha puts it into words: “See. You. Tomorrow.” And we can find hope as well, knowing that as long as there’s a tomorrow, we can keep on going, living day by day.

And there’s always a tomorrow. (41)

 

Rhea: Trying to Escape Childhood

Going back in time to when Bennie was in high school, Egan introduces us to Rhea, a member of Bennie’s high school band as a songwriter (44) and totally in love with him. She is the stereotypical teen girl, complete with the requisite low self-esteem, crushes on boys, feelings of ugliness, best friends to share secrets with, and an impatient desire to grow up. She is an example of the kind of cardboard character Jennifer Eagan speaks of in her interview on WPR where “a seeming clichéd character becomes nuanced and interesting” the more we learn about them. (Interview. 8:35) As we get to know her, we realize that she is trying to grow up too fast instead of enjoying her childhood while she’s in it.

Rhea has the classic teen girl’s sense of self-loathing when it comes to her appearance — she feels ugly because of her freckles. To her, it’s like someone threw handfuls of mud at her face. Her mom calls them special, but she can’t wait to grow up and be able have them removed. (44) What starts out as a clichéd teenage view of freckles blossoms into the more interesting examination of one reason a girl might be pushing to grow up faster than she should.

Another stereotypical teen behavior is made interesting by the setting in which it occurs. Like many teens Rhea and her friends try to act grown up by smoking cigarettes and drinking gin. What makes it interesting is the contrasting childhood images of sweets all around: cotton-candy carpet, cherry gum, and Coke cans. (44) This contrast emphasizes the theme that they are only children playing at grown-up, and the cherry gum covering up the cigarettes reminds us that Rhea is trying to become an adult faster than she should.

As Rhea’s character develops, we start to see that even she is beginning to realize that she may not be ready for this. When she and Jocelyn (her best friend) meet up with Lou (Jocelyn’s middle-aged boyfriend) at Vanessi’s, she slips into the booth under one of his arms while Jocelyn slips under the other and they become “Lou’s girls.” She does a line of cocaine and partakes in a grown-up conversation about bands’ exotic travel, and doing it together (the traveling, not sex, although this foreshadows the latter.) This all makes her feels like she was beginning her adult life that night. (50) However, later, when Jocelyn is giving Lou head at the club and Lou’s arm is around Rhea’s shoulders, she cries, (52) worried that this counts as having sex with Lou. (53) This sense of worry implies the first inkling that she may not be ready for this, that maybe she is going a little too fast.

This character growth is continued when Lou encourages her, telling her that her freckles are beautiful and that someone is going to love them and kiss every one of them individually. She knows he’s a jerk, but she takes it to heart anyway. (55) She then also comes to the realization that what happened at the club wasn’t really a threesome; she didn’t have sex with this man. (54) She cries again, but this time it’s because she is beginning to accept herself for who she is, freckles and all. (55)

Rhea’s story ends with a couple of girls playing tetherball. As we see the yellow ball (there’s that yellow again) wrapping around a silver pole (56), we are filled with hope that Rhea is finally learning to slow life down a little, to take the time to enjoy her childhood like the two girls are doing.

And we want to do the same.

 

Jocelyn: Regret of a Wasted Childhood

Jocelyn is Rhea’s best friend, but her character isn’t fully developed until Egan takes us 20 years later to a time when Jocelyn and Rhea go to visit Lou, the older man that she had spent her entire youth chasing but never realizing that he was just using her for sex. We see the regret early, as soon as Lou smiles at her, and the sight of that familiar smile, even with his yellow (again!) teeth, pokes like a finger in her gut. (77) The finger pokes her again when Rhea shows Lou a picture of her 16-year-old daughter and Lou admires her cuteness. (78) With Jocelyn’s reaction, we realize that she is feeling the regret of once being that young object of his insincere and selfish attention. But now she feels lost, like everything went past — without her. (78)

Jocelyn’s memories present us with some backstory: Lou picked her up when she was a 17-year-old hitchhiker. (78) Even on that first meeting they did cocaine and went all the way — twice. (46) According to Jocelyn, it could have been “the beginning of an exciting story, a story where anything might happen. Now it’s a punch line. ‘It was all for no reason,’” she says. (78) Regret for doing what she did is just dripping from her words.

The regret for all the time wasted comes through like a sledgehammer when the full realization of Lou’s condition hits her:

“So this is it—what cost me all that time. A man who turned out to be old, a house that turned out to be empty. I can’t help it, I start to cry.”

All the wasted years of waiting for a man that would never truly love her comes out in tears.

Egan shows us just how strong the regret is in the climax of the story. All of her pent up anger explodes and she dumps the hospital bed, Lou and all, into the swimming pool, the blood turning a kind of yellow (!) in the water. Then she jumps in after him and drowns him. It turns out to be a fantasy, but it vividly demonstrates the depth of her hurt. She still wants to kill him, that he deserves to die; but, with the old smile, he says, “Too late.” (81)

Earlier in the story, when Jocelyn is crying that it was all for no reason, Rhea answers “You just haven’t found the reason yet.” (78) By the end of the story, Jocelyn has found her reason. She is there for an old dying man when no one else would. But to do that, she had to learn to forgive.

And she does. When Lou clutches her hand, as if she might flee, she doesn’t. She stays with him for as many minutes as he needs.

And so can we.

 

Allison: A Happy Childhood

In Allison, Ms. Egan gives us a picture of a normal, happy childhood. Sasha has grown up — finally! — both in body and soul, married, and had kids: Allison, and her brother Lincoln.

Allison has the normal teenage attitude towards her Mom: she both respects her and is annoyed by her at times. She gets annoyed by her mother’s constant repeating of people’s exact words (194), but you can still see the love they share in the symbol of the toy horse her parents bought for her when they were in Pakistan, even before she was born, because Mom thought their baby might play with it. Allison still plays with it sometimes. (209) She even seems to appreciate her mom’s desert sculptures made out of trash, their old toys, and her “found objects” (some of which may be things she stole as a kleptomaniac). (196, 220) She knows that her brother will get Mom longer when it’s time to say goodnight, but she will get her first, and she’s okay with that. (214) This shows a strength and stability in her psyche that has been missing in most of the other characters’ youths.

It is also obvious that she is a Daddy’s girl. She misses him when he has to work so much, but she is proud of his career choice. He’s a doctor, well-respected by his colleagues, and a hero to her as seen in the example of his operating on the heart of a girl younger than her whose parent were illegals. Even with his busy-ness, he still takes the time to ask her how her day went. (202) They go for a walk together in the desert, and, since he and her brother are having a little spat (231-239), she has a chance to help him find a better way to relate with Linc (242) and they reconcile. (255-263)

This happy childhood has set her on a good course for good growth. Her parents have established a stable family life by spending time together, both individually (255-258) and as a family (223), and by understanding and accepting their kids for who they are. (231) This is something we can all learn from.

 

No Point Intended

Some would say that Ms. Egan never intended to make such a correlation between her characters and their views on childhood, and that trying to make this connection is absurd.

And they may be right on the first part.

However, that is one of the distinguishing factors of great literature. It has many layers of meaning beneath the surface, many of them often unintentional. That’s what gives great literature its lasting power. Literary analysts never run out of more golden nuggets of truth to mine for under the earthy surface of the words.

And Ms. Egan’s work is no exception. There is a multitude of veins to dig through in this book, ranging from symbols to themes; from settings to literary devices; from word choices to images; and so many, many others. Character is just one of the many.

In her interview with WPR, Ms. Eagan said she was intentionally examining time and its passage with this book, so it’s only natural that this would flow right into the passage of time as it passes from childhood into adulthood.

Whether it was intentional or not.

 

Out of the Lives of Babes

Like the song said, “Nothing comes from nothing.” There is always a reason that things have turned out the way are. Sasha’s experience of loss in her childhood led to kleptomania. Bennie’s unfulfilling childhood and young adulthood resulted in a mid-life crisis. Rhea’s low self-esteem as a teen led to poor choices in an effort to grow up too fast. Jocelyn lost her way as a teen and wasted her youth on a man that was using her. Allison’s stable family life gave her a happy childhood and a solid foundation upon which to grow. The best way to grow and develop is to learn from other people’s mistakes and experiences rather than going through the hardship ourselves. Thus the importance of great literature. We can learn from the characters in the story rather than suffering through it in our own lives.

Persevere; look to tomorrow while finding value in your past; accept yourself for who you are while you enjoy today; find a reason for living and forgive; spend time with your children while understanding and accepting them for who they are. These are the lessons A Visit from the Goon Squad has taught us.

Jennifer Egan has done a beautiful job giving us the opportunity to do something good with the youth and childhood of each of her characters.

(Intro to My “Literary Analysis” Category)

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Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, I invite you to check out what I think of as my best work on “My BYOB List (My Personal Favorites)”.

Works Cited

The Sound of Music. Dir. Robert Wise. Perf. Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer. Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation, 1965. DVD.

Egan, Jennifer. A Visit from the Goon Squad. New York: Random House, LLC, 2010. eBook.

Egan, Jennifer. Interview with Paul Paulson. “Jennifer Egan on A Visit from the Goon Squad.” Public Radio International.  TTBook.org. Web. 23 June. 2008.

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