Friday, July 8, 2016

Time is a Goon: Revisiting Jennifer Egan's 'A Visit from the Goon Squad'

When I was younger, I wanted to get a tattoo of a book quote. Well, that's an incorrect statement... I wanted to get many tattoos of books quotes, endless ink snaking around my skin like an  unsolvable riddle, as if somehow the act of printing words onto my physical person could turn me into a book, myself. Then I grew up, and after one too many chastisements from my disapproving mother, the foreshadowed terror of sagging skin and warped ink proved to be a suitable deterrent for my extreme bibliophilia (at least, in terms of my own attempt at transfiguration). I haven't really been tempted by the concept since.

Until, standing in my kitchen yesterday, waiting for tea to steep, when I read the words "Time is a goon." The act was immediately followed by the thought, "I need a tattoo of that."

The sentence comes from the acclaimed Jennifer Egan novel A Visit from the Goon Squad, which won the 2011 Pulitzer (as well as many other accolades, as if you clutched a fistful of gold-starred darts and overhanded them at a list of the world's top publishing achievements). It also formed the basis for my first-ever college-level English experience: my ENGL 111 class. An integral part of my Freshman Fall Quarter, the novel would become the best work I read in the whole of that year, and one that prompted one of the greatest author obsessions of my reading life.

I remember having classes on the second-floor of Bagley, UW's Chemistry building, located 20 walking minutes away, and becoming acquainted with our esteemed institution's overt apathy towards most Humanities programs. Our teacher was a graduate student whose disinterest in the question of us learning anything that Quarter, lead us to follow up Goon Squad with Jay Z's expletive-laced memoirs, then didn't allow us to use such language in class discussions or papers. I made friends in that class who, funnily enough, would go on to help define my Greek experience, as well as my scholarly one, and also gave me my first glimpse at my already-determined future as an English major.

While wandering through my bookshelf on a recent trip home, I saw my copy of A Visit from the Goon Squad wedged between my other Egan novels, and the title alone was enough to prompt me to a reread. Afterwards, I stumbled across the partial review of what I had written the first time 'round. I was fairly impressed with my description:
Instead of following a linear or chronological pattern when discussing [the novel's characters], Egan threads their stories together across the boundaries of time, traversing months, days, years and decades, to explore exactly how this seemingly unrelated cast came together. It's as if the entire book is a love letter to those six degrees that separate us from Kevin Bacon. It reinforces each of those chain links between us, that we may take for granted, and reminds us that strangers - or employees and bosses, girlfriends and one night stands, husbands and brothers and especially terrible fathers - may end up mattering more to us than we think, and we may still matter more to them.

In other words, if there was ever a book to remind you that every person you pass on the street has a past, a story, a family, a best friend, and especially a future, it's this one.
Rereading the complete post,  I was struck by how Freshman Savannah defined the work as an inherently hopeful one, as something that prompted outwards reflection, particularly in regards to the interconnections of the human community, the absence of moral absolutism, and most particularly, the idealism of hope. 

What was thrown into sharpest relief in that review, upon completing the reread, was the amount I didn't include. Themes of materialism, death (overcoming, succumbing, and bringing it about yourself), and ambition are ignored in the review, in favor of preaching kumbaya, which, of course, makes sense when you consider the mindset I was in when I was writing it: a scared freshman on the brink of four years of scholarship, what I needed to take away from the book was a sense of being less alone. 

(Then again, I wasn't wrong: flow chart artist Gillian James, of Tessie Girl, made this flowchart of Goon Squad characters back in 2013, and it's still not wholly representative!)

Now, as Senior Savannah, it's unsurprising that what strikes me the most about Goon Squad, is the malleability and consequentualitism of time. The nearly-nonexistent temporal delineations that once struck me as a device used to illustrate the power of meaningful human relationships, instead impress upon me distinct purpose: the whole is constructed on the foundation of the piece, the day is defined by its consequence in the ensuing year. The moment is catalyst, the rest is figuring out what that moment meant, and means.

The point is, that the point can be meaningful: plenty can happen in the years before, between, and coming, but it's preserving that moment that marks the difference. Each chapter forms a puzzle piece that, yes, casts a spotlight at a character and community, but they also illustrate realities of emotion, action, and change, on a definable scale. Yet, it's not just the individual chapters that make the book notable, but the entirety of it, just like it's not just one emotion, thought, or action that is most important, but the way they're all strung together.

Your best days and your worst days construct a complete and meaningful life; it's not Freshman Savannah in the act of reviewing a book or Senior Savannah in the act of reflecting on it, it's the inferred four years of experience, opportunity, and learning, dividing the two, that make them both so meaningful. You don't remember the number of books you've read, or the hours you spent confined in class, or the amounts of Diet Coke (and not Diet Coke) you drank during Finals Week... those are all the flotsam and jetsam that fill up the empty spaces of your life, but they're not the moments that truly build it.

Time is a goon - a bully, and a thug - but it's the collection of individual moments you're left with when the years are stripped away, the snapshot Polaroids of complete captured self that you string together into a story, that show the impact and importance of the whole thing.

I can't tell you all how happy I am that I decided to pick up this book again.

What book defined your college experience? If you could reread any book right now, what would it be? Let me know, in the comments below!

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