‘A Visit From The Goon Squad’ Book Club Part I: Light And Memory

This post contains spoilers through section 7 of A Visit From the Goon Squad. For next week, let’s finish the novel.

Perhaps it’s because I’m writing this at the Television Critics Association press tour, but A Visit From the Goon Squad feels more like a television show than almost any novel I’ve ever read. Normally, that comparison goes in the opposite direction to compliment and elevate a television show, but in this case, it shouldn’t feel like a demotion. Do you remember that opening tracking shot that begins the Battlestar Galactica miniseries that kicked the whole shebang off? Where you skip from one character to the next, and in a couple of minutes, you learn an enormous amount about who’s going to matter and get an initial sense of who they are? A Visit From the Goon Squad feels like that. And much like Battlestar Galactica, this is a novel about climactic moments, both when everything changes for everyone, and little things when people get set slightly off kilter in ways they can only recognize with hindsight.

First, the big thing. This is a New York novel without being heavy-handed about it, and because of that, it’s a September 11 novel in a way that I suspect that terrible day will figure in many events in the future. The references to it will be glancing, not all events will be organized around it, and yet, September 11 will be recognized as a moment that sent almost all of us off in different directions, however slight the course correction. Sasha “hated the neighborhood at night without the World Trade Center, whose blazing freeways of light had always filled her with hope.” For Jules, September 11 is a way of expressing his profound dislocation from the world after his release from prison. He tells Stephanie “I go away for a few years and the whole fucking world is upside down. Buildings are missing. You get strip-searched every time you go to someone’s office. Everybody sounds stoned, because they’re e-mailing people the whole time they’re talking to you. Tom and Nicole are with different people.…And now my rock-and-roll sister and her husband are hanging around with Republicans. What the fuck!” And Stephanie finds a conversation about al Qaeda in New York a symptom of the awfulness of her new life in the suburbs with Bennie, proof of the blinkered nature of the people around her.

That same deftness shows up in the revelations the characters have that aren’t connected to major world-historical events, that might, in fact, be inexplicable to anyone else. There’s Sasha’s realization about why she steals:

It was easy for Sasha to recognize, looking back, that the peeing woman’s blind trust had provoked her: We live in a city where people will steal the hair off your head if you give them half a chance, but you leave your stuff lying in plain sight and expect it to be waiting for you when you come back? It made her want to teach the woman a lesson. But this wish only camouflaged the deeper feeling Sasha always had: that fat, tender wallet, offering itself to her hand—it seemed so dull, so life-as-usual to just leave it there rather than seize the moment, accept the challenge, take the leap, fly the coop, throw caution to the wind, live dangerously (“I get it,” Coz, her therapist, said), and take the fucking thing.

Then there’s Bennie seeing Sasha, really for the first time in a long time, after visiting a once-promising band, and thinking: “Sasha had still been at NYU when he’d first met her at a Conduits gig at the Pyramid Club; that put her in her thirties now. Why hadn’t she married? Did she want kids? She seemed suddenly older, or was it just that Bennie seldom looked directly at her face?” There’s Rhea’s conversation with Lou where he confers on her the knowledge, for the first time, that she’s beautiful, and it moves her to tears: “Now he laughs, really laughs, and I understand that we’re friends, Lou and I. Even if I hate him, which I do. I get out of my chair and come to the railing, where he is. People will try to change you, Rhea, Lou goes. Don’t let ’em. But I want to change. No, he goes, serious. You’re beautiful. Stay like this. But the freckles, I go, and my throat gets that ache. The freckles are the best part, Lou says. Some guy is going to go apeshit for those freckles. He’s going to kiss them one by one.” And then there’s Scotty, who’s gotten seriously lost in the years since Rhea knew him, and seeing the difference between wealth and poverty in the hang of Bennie’s clothes: “I understood something for the very first time when I looked at that shirt: I understood that expensive shirts looked better than cheap shirts. The fabric wasn’t shiny, no—shiny would be cheap. But it glowed, like there was light coming through from the inside. It was a fucking beautiful shirt, is what I’m saying.”

Then there are the revelations that our characters don’t see at the time but that Eagan tells us that they’ll see someday. I think these sections of the novel could come across as precious, but I appreciate the precision to them. In Joe’s case, it’s the precision of the dagger hung in Plexiglas in the apartment: his life is a conduit for the journey of that particular object. It’s a nice little reversal, a story about how the ordinary becomes art. For Charlie, this is the backstory of Lou’s intense emptiness, something that radiates throughout the novel without ever putting him at center screen. There are some people who are important because of whose lives they touch. And for Mindy, the prediction of her future is about a dream deferred but not lost. I’m trying to decide if this is a story about fate, or just about the power of hindsight. Our lives our beautiful things when we see how they grew together.