A Visit into the Minds of the Goon Squad
In Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad, each chapter brings with it a different point of view that adds new dimensions that build upon the story arc. To emphasize characters’ thoughts and feelings and to offer different perspectives of recurring characters, Jennifer Egan uses varying points of view in “Ask Me If I Care,” “Safari,” and “You (Plural).” Rhea’s perspective in “Ask Me If I Care” provides the audience with a comprehensive view of her group while delivering the story in an adolescent manner. The narrators in “Safari” offers a look inside characters’ minds and their futures. Finally, in “You (Plural),” Jocelyn explains from a first-person perspective how her relationship with Lou affected her.
Rhea’s first-person perspective offers a holistic view of her group and a reflection of her own adolescent state. Rhea is the odd one out in the bunch. As she puts it, “Jocelyn knows I’m waiting for Bennie. But Bennie is waiting for Alice, who’s waiting for Scotty, who’s waiting for Jocelyn…Jocelyn loves Scotty back, but she isn’t in love with him…No one is waiting for me. In this story, I’m the girl no one is waiting for” (Egan, 42). She is the lone ranger in this mix of lovebirds, and her status offers the reader a comprehensive view of the gang. If the story were told here from any other characters’ points of view, the scope would be limited to just that person’s romantic interests. Rhea is interested in everyone’s love lives, as evidenced by how often she has Jocelyn redescribe her night of sexual debauchery (43). This focus on others’ lives and sexual activities can be attributed to her adolescence. Throughout the story, her juvenility steers the direction of the narrative. Channeling a manner typical of a teenager, the mood of the story can best be described as present. There is no evident forethought involved in the writing, as seen in the abrupt transitions, as when the narrator takes us from “1980 is almost here” directly to “We spend every free minute in the Pit” (40-41). However, this immediacy brings her audience right into the heart of the action. The narrator herself is close to the story; her descriptions are of raw emotion and initial thoughts, as if the audience receives the narrator’s thoughts as they occur to her. Another way the narrator displays her adolescence is by substituting “go” for “say”: “Jocelyn goes, ‘Watch, Rhea. They’ll be blond like her, the sisters.’ I go, ‘According to?’” (40). This is how most teenagers speak: in short, assertive expressions.
As the story progresses, Rhea begins the transition from adolescence to adulthood thanks to Lou, who acts as a catalyst in her personal change. Transitioning away from the previous chapter with its first-person point of view, “Safari” offers more insight into characters’ true thoughts, feelings, and futures with the omniscient third-person point of view. The chapter splits into three parts each focusing on a different character and his or her perceptions on the other characters. This makes for a revealing chapter, in which the reader sees each character in a new light in all three sections. For example, “Grass” focuses on Rolph and his father, while briefly describing Mindy as Lou’s next fling. However, “Hills” focuses on Mindy’s thoughts and feelings, and the audience receives a previously unseen perspective. Much of the passage is devoted to Mindy’s sudden attraction to Albert, a man who reveals a side of Mindy that the reader would never see if the focus stayed on Rolph and Lou. Egan also uses time telescoping to give the reader a sense of who each character really is and where they are headed. For example, an African warrior is briefly mentioned in “Grass,” but Egan’s use of time telescoping adds depth to even unimportant characters: “Thirty-five years from now, in 2008, this warrior will be caught in the tribal violence between the Kikuyu and the Luo and will die in a fire. He’ll have had four wives and sixty-three grandchildren by then, one of whom, a boy named Joe” (61). This description goes on and on, until it seems almost unnecessary, but the extreme detail and foresight helps to characterize these people and give them meaning.
Divided into three parts and focused on three different characters, the third person omniscient point of view in “Safari” also delivers insight on different characters’ views on Lou, which culminates into an unprecedented characterization of Lou himself. In the preceding chapter, Lou is negatively portrayed as taking advantage of a young teenage girl for sexual favors. In “Grass,” Rolph offers the audience the first view of Lou in a somewhat positive light- as a father. The narrator says that Rolph “is the one person in the world that can soothe [Lou]” (63). The audience sees the loving relationship that the pair has and it paints Lou in a more humane, caring light. In “Hills,” Mindy offers a slightly different, more superficial perspective: “Structural Incompatibility: A powerful twice-divorced male will be unable to acknowledge, much less sanction, the ambitions of a much younger female mate. By definition, their relationship will be temporary” (65). Mindy bluntly states that her relationship with Lou isn’t based on true love, but is rather a fleeting relationship where one party gains sex and the other gains “luxury, adventure, and a break from her roommates” (66). This helps characterize Lou further as a superficial player in constant need of sex. Finally, in “Sand,” the focus is on Charlie who foreshadows the familial devastation that will occur years down the road thanks to Lou. Though she is only a teen, Charlie can begin to notice the signs of a dying family. As she points out, Lou used to hug her all the time, “but as she grows older it happens less” (75). The audience gets a glimpse at a separation beginning between Lou and Rolph after Lou says “Women are cunts” (78). Rolph develops a seething “rage at this man who casts everyone aside” (79), realizing how despicable his father is. Rolph is struggling with his father’s misogynistic mindset and feels an anger paralleled to Lou’s when he learns of Mindy’s attraction to Albert. It’s clear that Rolph is unhappy with the current state of his family and longs for what their family used to be, as evidenced by his use of the word “remember” so many times. The reader is only introduced to a snippet of Lou’s interactions with Rolph, but it is clear that there will be trouble between the two in the future, as the narrator later describes. Lou’s lifestyle and mindsets, and their effects on his children, are detailed through Charlie’s point of view.
Two chapters after Egan delivers Rhea’s perspective, Jocelyn tells the story from her first-person perspective in “You (Plural)” and describes what effects her relationship with Lou had on her. The first person point of view offers more personal insight into the narrator’s emotions. Jocelyn, now in her 40s, voices the deep regret she harbors about her relationship with Lou as a teen. She describes her life, how she’s living with her mother and recovering from addictions and trying to get a degree. When Jocelyn compares her own life to Rhea’s, who has it all under control, the reader is exposed to the resentment Jocelyn bears towards Lou, this “selfish, devouring man” (89), whom she blames for her life’s misfortunes. Jocelyn’s realization of her past mistakes with Lou and her raw lividity towards him are fiercely displayed through her voice, in lines such as “I should kill you… you deserve to die” (90). The audience is exposed to the full emotion behind Jocelyn’s story, which couldn’t be delivered as effectively from any other character.
Jennifer Egan utilizes shifting points of view in “Ask Me If I Care,” “Safari,” and “You (Plural)” to portray characters’ emotions and to deliver contrasting perspectives, detailing each figure in the book. Juggling first person and third person omniscient, the author’s carefully chosen narrators each offer their own insights that advance the story and give the characters depth.
Egan, Jennifer. A Visit From the Goon Squad. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010. Print.
“Pure Language” and the Dirtying of Technology in Egan’s Novel
In the digital era, children are exposed to digital devices and the internet practically at birth through iPods, iPads, and iMacs–an element of modern childhood completely foreign to the parents raising these children. In the chapter “Pure Language” from A Visit From the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan’s character Alex, a new father, believes he has a responsibility to protect his child from digital devices, implying that children are put in danger when exposed to the internet and social media. However, Alex’s choice of career and interactions with others reveal that adults are equally at risk while using social media and digital communication, if not more so, than the children they are theoretically trying to protect, causing us to question whether children are the ones endangered by these forms of technology in the first place.
Egan uses the medium of fictional storytelling to create a relatable parental character, connecting to and sympathizing with parents responsible for modernized, tech-savvy children in order to bolster her argument that digital communication and social media are not just dangers for children, but for all generations. Egan uses the inner monologue of Alex in order to show the fear parents feel for their children in the face of the internet and modern digital devices, yet also arguing that these technologies are unavoidable in childhood today. In Egan’s portrayal of a slightly futuristic New York City, it is standard for children to have “kiddie handsets” (Egan, 313), a form of smartphone designed specifically for children; however, Alex agrees with his wife that their own daughter “would not [have a kiddie handset] until age five” (Egan, 313). Alex and his wife clearly support the “childhood at risk” discussion. According to Craft, the “childhood at risk” argument “emphasises inherent vulnerabilities in childhood” as well as adult responsibility for children, “exploiting parental fears…[and] delaying traditional milestones of adulthood” (Craft, 176). Alex actively restricts his child’s access to digital gadgets, proving he believes that he is protecting his child by limiting her use of these “kiddie handsets.” Evidently, Alex thinks both of his child as vulnerable and technology as threatening. By feeling a need to protect his child from the handsets, Alex demonstrates his belief that he–and, in turn, parents in general–is responsible for upholding the notion of childhood that his generation experienced–one without digital entertainment and communication.
Egan’s choice of the age “five” as the end on Alex and his wife’s ban on technology also demonstrates the ephemeral time limit of this ban and parental control in the face of digitization in general. Beyond this young age of five, a restriction of the use of digital devices is no longer plausible, indicating that childhood is already too inherently digital, despite parents’ desires to prevent these personal devices from taking over their children’s lives. At age five, children usually enter the traditional school system, starting with kindergarten. At this age, parents’ control is considerably minimized because of a child’s constant exposure to other children, other adults, and the use of computers in school. Through the choice of the age five, Egan argues that in these digital times, there is little an adult can do to keep children from the digital world, which in this day of age could be thought of as a “milestone of adulthood” (Craft, 176), or nowadays, childhood. Though Alex attempts to delay his child’s transition into both a new era of childhood and a new stage of life, like is suggested of adults in the “childhood at risk” perspective (Craft, 176), there is only so much he can do to keep his child away from electronics and the internet, proving that Egan believes these technologies are central to today’s concept of childhood. When Alex’s handset vibrates, his daughter points to his pocket and exclaims, “Das mine!” causing Alex to question if it was “possible his daughter could feel the vibrations through his body” (Egan, 321). Alex’s panicked reaction, though slightly absurd, demonstrates the fear that he and other parents feel towards smartphones in relation to children. His worry that his child is capable of feeling the handset through another human is never actually disproved, alluding to parents’ concerns that children are already too powerfully connected to digital apparati. The italics on “mine” also show that his daughter assumes ownership over the device, implying that these handsets are integral to a child’s identity, property, and childhood itself.
Through Alex’s interaction with his daughter, Egan creates a moment that parents can sympathize with while also arguing that the shift in childhood to include digital communication devices has already occurred. Through the structure of society in Egan’s “Pure Language,” such as children’s role in the market, Egan exposes the generational gap between youth and adults and affirms the power that children gain from digital devices. In Egan’s world, children are known as “pointers” because “any child who [can] point [is] able to download music,” making them the “arbiters of musical success” (Egan, 313). Without handsets, a child’s ability to point would have no impact on anything; however, when combined with internet-capable devices, a child gains enormous purchasing power. Thus, with a simple point, children can heavily influence not just the music industry, but any market utilizing online sales. This condition of Egan’s society supports the “childhood empowered” debate, which emphasizes the “marketisation of childhood” and “greater sense of personal agency” that children feel as a result of technology (Craft, 177). Egan chooses the music industry as the example for childhood’s heightened consumerism because of its emotional associations, as it is an industry people often feel strongly towards because of its nostalgia and artistic significance. Thus, if children are the “arbiters of musical success,” or the new authorities on art, readers might feel a new level of distaste towards the “marketisation of childhood,” not because of the damage it might do to children itself, but to society as a whole.
Though Alex expresses fear of his daughter losing both good values and the innocence of childhood as a result of the internet and handsets, he neglects to realize the effect of online networks on his own character, supporting Egan’s argument that adults are even more negatively impacted by the online world than their allegedly vulnerable children. Upon entering the music industry, Alex is given the job of recruiting “parrots,” people with online personas tasked with creating buzz in their social networks about various topics or events. (Egan, 315). In order to select the perfect parrots, Alex must rate each candidate using three metrics on a scale of 1-10: “how much they need money (‘Need’), how connected and respected they [are] (‘Reach’), and how open they might be to selling that influence (‘Corruptibility’)” (Egan, 315). Egan uses Alex’s career as a jarring example of how adults and their morals, too, are endangered by the internet and social media networks, not just children. Alex’s career requires him to dehumanize his friends online both by comparing them to animals–specifically parrots, which are often thought of as nuisances–and quantifying them in such a simplistic manner, devaluing them to three single-digit values in order to assess their worth to him. Thus, through his digitally fueled career, he becomes the corrupted. Through Alex’s job, Egan asserts that social media and smartphones pose a danger to adults as well.
While some might argue that Jennifer Egan’s medium of fictional writing does not give her the authority to enter the academic debate surrounding the effects of technology on children, it is principally Egan’s use of story that allows her such a unique contribution to the discussion of digital childhood. In most academic papers, it is frowned upon to employ emotional appeals as part of an argument, but in prose, emotion is a substantial asset, especially to Egan. Through prose, Egan creates Alex, the perfect character to appeal to adults (particularly parents) and convince them of her argument that online communication is detrimental not only to children, but also adults like Alex and like the readers. Alex himself disparages technology, saying that “every byte of information he’d posted online (favorite color, vegetable, sexual position) was stored…–that he was owned…, having sold himself unthinkably” (Egan, 316). While any academic paper could say that the internet takes advantage of people’s willingness to give up information without knowing the consequences, only Egan’s prose can do so in such an engaging way that creates an emotional connection to the readers who, too, have comically posted silly information like their favorite vegetable online. The self-deprecation in the line where Alex pities himself for being “owned” also helps to make Alex more relatable and strengthens Egan’s point that everyone is at risk online, even and especially adults. Without prose, Egan would be making the same argument as everyone else in the academic debate surrounding childhood, instead of offering an unprecedented perspective involving humor and feeling.
In “Pure Language,” Egan creates a world in which the internet and electronic devices are threatening forces, thus arguing that these technologies are also destructive in our own society. However, not only children are jeopardized by these devices. In fact, because children are growing and learning alongside these forms of technology instead of having them enter their lives as alien forces like adults have had, children are instead freed by the internet and smartphones, fully knowing their capabilities both good and bad. Children have grown up using the internet and its communication methods, and know better than to share their personal information online, unlike adults like Alex. Nevertheless, because they have grown up in a digital world and know nothing else, it is incredibly difficult to protect children from the internet, especially since they do not see it as a menacing entity. In fact, adults are the ones who are more vulnerable in the face of internet-capable devices because they fear them and are not wholly aware of the internet’s enormous capacity. Egan contends that internet electronics are a force to be reckoned with for adults; they are the ones offering up their favorite sex positions on the web, after all.
Egan, Jennifer. A Visit from the Goon Squad. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010. Print.Craft, Anna. “Childhood in a Digital Age: Creative Challenges for Educational Futures.” London Review of Education 10.2 (2012): 173-90. Web.
Fish as Symbols for the Acceptance of Reality in ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’
At first, references to fish in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad seem fleeting and insignificant. Fish appear to serve as nothing more than dinner for Lou’s family or an odd prop for Scotty to carry around. Upon further investigation, however, it grows apparent that the various fish references dispersed throughout the book are not random, but actually connected and loaded with meaning. Egan unifies multiple narratives in A Visit From The Goon Squad by employing fish as a symbol of reality, using them to reveal the difficulty and importance of accepting actuality.
Fish references immediately precede several instances where characters discover a hidden truth. Ted describes “letting the caffeine and vodka greet in his brain like fighting fish” (Egan 227) right before he finds Sasha living in a brothel, and Rob mentions “a couple of toothless geezers fishing under the Williamsburg Bridge” (Egan 204) shortly before divulging to Drew that Sasha lived in Naples as a “‘hooker and a thief’” (Egan 204). Similarly, in Africa, Lou and Rolph go fishing right before Rolph reveals Mindy’s affair with Albert. The repeated pairings of fish references with revelations unite three different narratives as well as strengthen the association between fish and reality. Each situation also features the characters giving angered responses to the truth. For example, Lou gets “angry, a muscle jumping in his jaw” and snaps that “women are cunts” (Egan 78) in front of his young son, and Drew responds to Rob with “‘that’s insane’” and “‘fuck you for saying it’” (Egan 204). The characters’ profane replies to hidden truths strengthen Egan’s argument that people struggle with accepting harsh realities. After some time passes, the characters in each situation benefit from knowing the truth; though hard to hear, Ted needs to know Sasha’s dire living situation in order to help her, Drew needs to know the truth about Sasha’s past to move forward in their relationship, and Lou needs to know about Mindy’s infidelity in order to “win” (Egan 79) by his own standards. These positive outcomes support the idea that though accepting reality may be hard at first, it eventually results in growth and happiness.
Scotty places a value on accepting reality that sets him apart from other characters. While fishing in the East River, he acknowledges that “pollution [is] present,” but “the beauty of it [is] that you know all about that pollution, unlike the many poisons you consume each day in ignorance” (Egan 94). This attitude toward fishing promotes a constant awareness of reality, bolstering Egan’s argument that whether positive or negative, significant or trivial, it is better to acknowledge reality than to live in ignorance. Since Scotty implies that the East River fish’s beauty comes from their lack of anything to hide, when he gives a “beautiful” (Egan 105) East River fish to Bennie, it acts as a symbol of authenticity. By bringing a fish, a piece of raw reality, into Bennie’s posh office world, Scotty attempts to “[pull] Bennie back” to his old, genuine self, when they “were two out of four Flaming Dildos” (Egan 101). Scotty views the fish as a gift; he hopes to bring Bennie back to earth both literally and figuratively, journeying to Bennie’s sky-high office to tempt him with a token from the river and a more sincere lifestyle.
After Scotty leaves the bagged fish in Bennie’s office, he fantasizes that Bennie “might open up the bag and take a look, just for the hell of it,” knowing that “he’d be amazed” (Egan 105) by its contents. It takes years, but Bennie does “open the bag,” so to speak, because he comes to realize that the music his label produces sounds “too clear” and “too clean” for his liking, and he hates its “precision,” “perfection,” and “digitization, which sucked the life out of everything that got smeared through its microscopic mesh” (Egan 23). Music described as “too clean” foils Scotty’s fish, an item so filthy it causes the “corporate types [to jump] to their feet as if it were nuclear runoff” (Egan 99) when it leaks a little juice. “Digitization” suggests something man-made and modified, which sharply contrasts with the natural, raw fish. “Microscopic mesh” evokes a fish net — something that constrains a fish — which would symbolically suggest that Bennie’s digital world limits his perception of reality. The music’s synthetic traits work to amplify the fish’s natural, authentic qualities, strengthening the fish’s role as a symbol of reality. Bennie struggles to leave his office job, but when he does, he feels better and pursues freelance work with musicians he genuinely likes. This supports the idea that reality, though sometimes masked by artificialities, ultimately proves rewarding to embrace.
Scotty’s fish unifies multiple chapters, as his advice to “open the bag” and accept reality comes to fruition at the end of the book when Bennie wants to showcase Scotty’s “pure” and “untouched” (Egan 336) music. Bennie persuades Scotty to perform by reminding him that years ago, he “brought [him] a fish’” (Egan 333). His reference to the fish implies that Scotty succeeded in bringing Bennie back to his true self — so much so, in fact, that Bennie is now using the same tactic on Scotty. This also supports the idea that accepting reality is beneficial, because Scotty achieves fame and Bennie can finally take credit for creating a star whose music he enjoys.
While Egan stresses the importance of accepting reality, she also portrays reality as fragile and easily manipulated. During the safari, Lou’s perception of fish as “easy targets” (Egan 77) makes sense symbolically, because Lou frequently and willingly exploits reality by way of substance abuse, meaningless relationships, and lies, such as drunkenly telling teenage Rhea “I am your age” (Egan 56) and making a move on her. Lou’s lifelong failure to accept reality has devastating results; he dies estranged from his children, never having achieved the ability to form a stable relationship with anyone. Only on his deathbed does he finally acknowledge his current situation, admitting that he “‘got old’” (Egan 89). Lou’s grim fate serves as a warning for others who may wish to tamper with reality, and proves that ultimately, one must decide between facing reality’s ups and downs or living a distorted, unfulfilling life.
Egan, Jennifer. A Visit From The Goon Squad. New York: Random House, 2010. Print.