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Jennifer Egan and the Extraneous Center

Jennifer Egan's fiction asks whether our experience is now technologically mediated to the point that we routinely mistake the map for the territory. In her book A Visit from the Goon Squad, she evokes a world where the pressure constantly to self-reinvent threatens to erode our sense of identity.

The protagonists of Jennifer Egan’s novels are often pursuing some form of celebrity or insider status that ultimately proves illusory. Irene in Look At Me envies a high school friend for being “at the absolute center, adored by the boy whom everyone loved, without trying.” Irene becomes a model, reflecting that “a model's position as a purely physical object... is in a sense just a more exaggerated version of everyone's position in a visually-based, media-driven culture...” She then progresses from marketing her appearance to marketing her life story – “I was both the center of attention and completely extraneous. The feeling brought with it an eerie, stultifying familiarity; I was still the model, after all. I was modeling my life.”

Danny in The Keep is addicted to his cell phone –

“True, he wasn't connected to anyone right at that second, but in a general way he was so connected that his connectedness carried him through the dry spells in subways or certain deep buildings when he couldn't actually reach anyone” 

and the potential opportunities it embodies

“... Danny had not much going on and no real prospects on the horizon, but what about all those prospects beyond the horizon? Those were the ones he was thinking about.”

Having access to information is what makes him feel like he isn't wasting his life. In Danny's case this way of thinking results in paranoia and burnout, the hustler’s occupational hazards – although as it turns out, maybe Danny isn’t paranoid enough.

The worlds Egan creates are full of agents, image consultants, and PR persons, with ultimate power resting in the hands of publicists. Although her characters work as models, for nightclubs or in the music industry, her vision applies to every micro-society, every walk of life. Her center of the world is a Manhattan nightclub, and people desire first to be let in, and then to be let into the VIP area – yet those who reach the innermost sanctum of celebrity find only a void. Scotty in A Visit from the Goon Squad has a characteristically Eganesque epiphany when he reflects that “one key ingredient of so-called experience is the delusional faith that it is unique and special, that those included in it are privileged and those excluded from it are missing out.”

A Visit from the Goon Squad emphasizes the unreality of the center/periphery distinction through a decentralized structure that doesn't privilege any one narrative line. Egan, in this video, describes the book as more like a concept album than a short story collection and has also said she wanted to capture “the same kind of lateral feeling of a television series – the same kind of sense of movement in all directions, but not necessarily forward.” The novel – ultimately it does function as a novel -- is now slated to be made into a TV series, and part of its attraction from this point of view is surely its open-endedness: the characters are clearly defined yet also seem to invite further development.

The story of Bennie and Scotty has mythic force, but is presented so disjointedly that the reader has to work hard to piece it together. As adolescents in San Francisco, Bennie and Scotty play in a band together. Scotty is the angriest one, and has smudges in his vision from staring too long at the sun. Bennie is a bad bass player but a good organizer. The two “agree on everything, maybe through ESP,” until they fall out over a girl and lose contact with each other. Their only real on-scene encounter occurs decades later, when Bennie is a famous music producer and Scotty a janitor. All Scotty has over Bennie by now is his idea that “there was only an infinitesimal difference, a difference so small that it barely existed except as a figment of the human imagination, between working in a tall green glass building on Park Avenue and collecting litter in a park.”         

While once Bennie did an amateurish job of making music that he cared about, he now does a professional job of producing music that he hates, music whose very “muddiness, the sense of actual musicians playing actual instruments in an actual room” is an effect that has to be added in during the mixing process... “The problem was precision, perfection; the problem was digitization, which sucked the life out of everything that got smeared through its microscopic mesh.” Scotty brings Bennie a fish he has caught in the East River, then gives Bennie's business card away to a junkie.

Bennie embodies marketing and Scotty -- a man who closes his eyes a lot and is missing most of his teeth – represents creativity. Bennie is smarm and Scotty is soul, and to go places, it turns out they need each other. Although oddly, it's only after Bennie has seemingly lost the power to help Scotty – having “returned to producing music with a raspy, analog sound, none of which had really sold” -- that Bennie actually does make Scotty a star. I talked about Bennie and Scotty to a drummer I met in a bar the other night, and their story resonated with him, prompting him to tell me one of his own -- about having to leave a band once it got successful because they would no longer let him play the songs that held meaning for him. The struggle between Bennie and Scotty plays out all around us.

“It's not about music,” Bennie says, “it's about reach,” and his approach to making Scotty a star is straightforward – he pays people to hype Scotty’s upcoming live concert in lower Manhattan. Scotty no longer even craves celebrity, but Bennie's plan works anyway, and Scotty’s show passes into legend. At the point of their joint triumph, Bennie has never been sleazier, and Scotty has never been more of a mess, with the burned-out appeal of “ a man you knew just by looking had never had a page or a profile...”

Despite this integrity, Scotty can succeed only by becoming the human equivalent of a “husk word,” a concept Egan defines thus – “English was full of these empty words – 'friend' and 'real' and 'story' and 'change' – words that had been shucked of their meanings and reduced to husks. Some, like 'identity,' 'search' and 'cloud' had clearly been drained of life by their Web usage…” Is Egan overstating her case here? Has Facebook actually changed the meaning of friendship, or reality TV the meaning of reality, or the press release the meaning of story? Or in Bennie's terms, is it really all about “reach?”

The way A Visit from the Goon Squad is structured highlights the way our lives move on while our attention's elsewhere, simulating that sense of temporal vertigo we experience when reconnecting with somebody we haven't seen in a long time. Also emphasized is the the situational nature of identity -- Benny is not the same person to his wife as he is to Scotty as he is to his assistant, the redheaded lost girl Sasha who's the closest thing A Visit from the Goon Squad has to a heroine. Part of the point of Sasha is that she never quite stops eluding the reader. Her father disappeared when she was six; she is a kleptomaniac; as an adolescent she ran away to Naples, and supported herself under miserable circumstances, not at the center but at the periphery of attention. In the opening chapter, she steals a piece of paper with the words I BELIEVE IN YOU written on it. She tells her therapist not to ask how she feels about this – an authorial device that forces the reader to figure out how she does feel.

One clue is that Sasha subsequently marries the man who believes in her. We learn this in the chapter that's told as a PowerPoint presentation created by Sasha’s twelve-year-old daughter Alison. This is the most poignant chapter in the book, although some of its emotional force depends on the reader recalling information about Sasha from other chapters that didn't necessarily stand out on first reading – there's a deliberate lack of foreshadowing throughout the novel that makes it easy to overlook significant details.

I would stress the importance of reading the PowerPoint chapter on the author's website rather than in the book (but not until you've read the previous chapters) so that you get the impact of the soundtrack and the colors...

One way PowerPoint works here is as a metaphor for the fractured way teenagers see their parents – as an itemized array of irritating habits, perceived with stark ahistorical clarity. But despite Bennie's animus against digitization, the PowerPoint chapter is very emotionally “muddy” – the third time I read it (which was also the first time I read the website version), it even made me cry. Which illustrates why, in the end, I'm not convinced by Egan's suggestions that technology inevitably drains our lives of authenticity. Digital music can be as emotive as analog music, not all your Facebook friends are only your friends on Facebook (or at least not unless you're really famous), and our real selves can be glimpsed through our pages and profiles and even our PowerPoint presentations.

Yet compared to a traditional novel heroine, Sasha does seem a “husk,” which perhaps actually makes her easier for today's reader to identify with. Motherhood is one more role she's playing, with most of her past experiences compartmentalized somewhere her daughter can't access them. At the end of the novel, having made the decrepit Scotty a star, Bennie searches for Sasha but he can't locate her either. They say it's the journey not the destination, but in this book, the journey too feels like an illusion – in this book it's as if it's not even the journey, it's those moments along the way where you stop for a moment and notice where you are.

About the author

James Warner is the author of All Her Father's Guns, a Bay Area novel, published in 2011 by Numina Press. His short stories have appeared in many publications. His personal website is here

His openDemocracy column is Standing Perpendicular

 


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