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Anchor Characters in A Visit From the Goon Squad

January 16, 2011

According to a brilliant poetry instructor I had years ago, the first task you have as the writer of a particular book is to teach the reader how to read it. By that she meant that the author should be aware of guiding the reader in the initial pages toward an understanding and acceptance of the style, structure, or voice she is using, especially if the work is experimental. After reading the first two chapters of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, it appeared to me that Egan was doing exactly the opposite. Instead of starting with a sort of mini-manual, perhaps in the form of first chapters that map the territory she is about to cover, she fools the reader by beginning in a traditional form, with two point of view characters and an intertwined story told, almost exclusively, in close third person. To first time readers of Egan’s wide-roaming novel, this approach, however, works extremely well because it anchors us in two characters who serve as reference points when completely new characters or situations burst onto the page. At the beginning of each subsequent chapter of the novel, I found myself asking: How is this person or these events related to Sasha or Bennie?

Chapter One, “Found Objects,” is told from the perspective of Sasha. The second sentence of the novel grounds the reader in Sasha’s perspective: “Sasha was adjusting her yellow eye shadow in the mirror when she noticed a bag on the floor beside the sink that must have belonged to the woman whose peeing she could faintly hear through the vaultlike door of a toilet stall” (3). First, we see Sasha’s peculiar yellow eye shadow, then, following her gaze away from her reflection, we see the purse. Sasha reveals what drew her eye: “Inside the rim of the bag, barely visible, was a wallet made of pale green leather” (3). This is followed, in italics, by Sasha’s retrospective analysis—why the bag provoked her the way it did, which serves, basically, as a rationalization for stealing the wallet. In the last line of the first paragraph, we are introduced to Sasha’s therapist, Coz, who is evidently attempting to help Sasha understand and control this stealing problem. By the end of just the first paragraph, we know at least one of Sasha’s conflicts (the desire to steal vs. the desire to change) and we know she has recognized a need for change—otherwise, at least we would hope, she would not be seeing a therapist. We have been carried into her perspective with sensory detail: color (yellow and pale green), spatial details (vaultlike door, rim of the bag) and tactile metaphor (the wallet is described as fat and tender). So far, the book is reading like a realistic novel with a straightforward narrative structure.

The second chapter, “The Gold Cure,” confirms this impression, introducing the reader to the second anchor character, Bennie, who is also Sasha’s boss. We are, in fact, thrown even more immediately into Bennie’s psychological world, beginning this time with the first sentence: “The shame memories began early that day for Bennie, during the morning meeting… (15). The chapter follows Bennie through his day as a music business executive and divorced father, using the shame memories both as scaffolding and opportunity to fill in some of Bennie’s history. The first specific memory comes on the first page, triggered by a meeting to discuss a sister-sister band. Bennie remembers “…himself, squatting, behind a nunnery in Westchester at sunrise after a night of partying–twenty years ago was it? More? Hearing waves of pure, ringing, spooky-sweet sound waft into the paling sky… Wet grass under his knees, its iridescence pulsing through his exhausted eyeballs” (16). Bennie reveals the shaming incident two paragraphs later, when he “lurched across the sill and kissed [the Mother Superior] on the mouth: velvety, skin-fuzz, an intimate, baby powder smell…” (16). What is interesting here is how Bennie’s character is revealed through Bennie’s acute sensory memories, provoked from outside of and within his body. Bennie, we understand, is an intense guy, whose feelings are often stimulated by music. In his and Sasha’s visit to the sister-band’s home, while listening to the sisters sing, “These sensations met with a faculty deeper in Bennie than judgment or even pleasure; they communed directly with his body, whose shivering, bursting reply made him dizzy. And here was his first erection in months…” (23) As with Sasha, by the end of Bennie’s point of view chapter, we know a good deal about his passions and problems, and have a strong, inside/outside sense of who Bennie is.

Worth noting, however, is that there are a number of other, more buried points of orientation which one doesn’t notice in a first reading of the two chapters of the novel. These orientation points could potentially be acting in the way my poetry professor suggested, guiding the reader in how to read the novel, in what the novel is “about,” but on an intuitive or unconscious level. The first line of the first chapter of Egan’s novel steps a short distance away from the traditional close third. “It began the usual way, in the bathroom of the Lassimo Hotel” (3). In a first reading, readers may easily disregard this voice entirely as the close third envelops our senses in the next and all subsequent sentences of the chapter. Or, we can interpret this voice as a retrospective voice, Sasha at some point in the future, even the near future, looking back. This unconscious theory could be said to be confirmed by Sasha’s thoughts, occurring twice in the chapter in italics, which are indeed retrospective. After continuing to read the novel, however, it seems to me that this sentence is actually an omniscient voice that frames the narrative space and, especially in future chapters, is emboldened to manipulate time at will, telling readers, for example, the outcomes of certain actions, or the fate of characters in question, far into the future. So the first sentence of the novel, in a far more subtle way, orients the reader to the potential for narrative shifting, and a wide range of time. In addition, both Sasha’s and Bennie’s chapters are peppered with references to people and places and events and themes that turn up in later chapters or are developed through the trajectory of the novel. We can’t know this when we read it the first time, but Egan has subtly planted multiple orientation points so that while we may feel surprised and even thrown of balance slightly by shifts in future chapters, we never feel truly lost.

Interestingly, after taking flight into first and close third person points of view from a number of other characters, even using the slides of a power point to reveal the thoughts and feelings of an eleven-year-old character, Egan begins the last chapter of the novel with Bennie. For one second when I read it the first time, I wondered: Is Egan going to frame the novel—beginning with the Sasha and Bennie chapters and ending with them as well, a kind of return to traditional structure. This does not turn out to be the case. The last chapter, while featuring Bennie prominently, is actually told from Alex’s close third point of view. Alex seems to be a newly introduced character (with issues and problems unique to him) until he brings up Sasha, and the fact that he slept with Sasha years back. Turning quickly to the front of the book, I find him: Alex, the man Sasha went out with, and slept with, once. Not only did Sasha forget about him (and predict that Alex would forget about her), I did as well. In re-introducing a minor character from the first chapter, Egan is wrapping up her novel by bringing back the two anchor characters, closing the circle, or the meandering path, that her novel has taken. She is also maintaining the interesting form she has built, in a way instructing the reader that a novel of this innovative form can also be fun. What holds Egan’s novel together, though it is not overtly mapped in a traditional novel arc, is a story, or stories, of believable, interesting people, structured around emotion, framed by each character’s quirky, sensual experience of a small slice of their lives, and it’s nice to end with the characters we started with, to say good bye and let them go.

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