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.