This post contains spoilers for A Vist from the Goon Squad.
There may be something sentimental about the idea that we are all connected, affected by each others’ actions and worldviews in ways we can’t see until later. But for a novel that’s ultimately about how art helps us collectively and individually overcome the traumas of September 11, it’s a fitting ideological framework. The events of that day came about in part because of reactions to our actions that we didn’t see, or take seriously enough, in part because a small group of poisonously angry men wanted to make themselves seen, and felt. In the years since the attacks, we’ve mostly responded by trying to regulate the world in a way that’s more advantageous to us, to see everything, even at the expense of privacy and liberty. The power of Egan’s novel comes from asserting a positive vision of interconnection, one governed not by power and victory but by compassion and openness.
Because it turns out, of course, that Alex’s bad night with Sasha in the early years after the attacks ends up becoming the key to his ability to appreciate the event that changes — and maybe heals — a nation. As the New Yorker of longer vintage, she is part of his initiation into city. And years later, her experience of loss will refract back to him:
Before them, the new buildings spiraled gorgeously against the sky, so much nicer than the old ones (which Alex had only seen in pictures), more like sculptures than buildings, because they were empty…The weight of what had happened here more than twenty years ago was still faintly present for Alex, as it always was when he came to the Footprint. He perceived it as a sound just out of earshot, the vibration of an old disturbance. Now it seemed more insistent than ever: a low, deep thrum that felt primally familiar, as if it had been whirring inside all the sounds that Alex had made and collected over the years: their hidden pulse.
He’s right to be anxious, maybe even more than we can understand. Egan’s very, very good at evoking the future. She places us in time with the reference to a 15-year war and the baby boom that followed, though whether it’s our involvement in the Middle East or another conflict remains unclear. Her description of social networking gives us a sense of vaster, though still personal, webs of connection, of earlier adoption of technology by children. Both the war and the spread of technology have enabled the expansion of the state security apparatus, though whether the fear is legitimate or justified also remains open to question. And the reaction to Scotty’s performance, the moment when “ballads of paranoia and disconnection ripped from the chest of a man you knew just by looking had never had a page or a profile or a handle or a handset, who was part of no one’s data, a guy who had lived in the cracks all these years, forgotten and full of rage, in a way that now registered as pure. Untouched,” are so strong that they suggest that things got truly bad. It might still be possible to make rock music, and to market it, but there’s something shimmering off the page.
Some of what that might have been is suggested in Dolly’s tremendously funny, frightening story, which feels especially timely after the recent scrutiny of celebrities like Hillary Swank who took huge sums of money to entertain dictators. This section of the book feels slightly more hyper-real than the rest of the novel — it’s hard to believe, especially in the wake of the Arab Spring, that a hat or a hottie would actually change the international perception of a murderous dictator. But there’s something true about the fact that we’re easily distractible: “I wonder how the general dances? And if Dolly could get people to ask that question, the general’s image problems would be solved. It didn’t matter how many thousands he’d slaughtered—if the collective vision of him could include a dance floor, all that would be behind him.” And I’m also fascinated by the way Lulu moves through the novel, first as a distantly-glimpsed figure during the Africa trip, then as the unflappable little girl eating star fruit in a dictatorship, and finally, as a vision of the future, the person who is figuring out things that Alex and Bennie can’t.
And as for the woman who was that young girl once? If Sasha’s role in Alex’s life was to help guarantee that he would stay in New York, and that he’d see the city in a way that lets him see Scotty’s moment of glory the way that he does, it turns out that she’s had a role of her own. It’s hard to write about the powerpoint section of the novel, because it reads more like poetry than prose, because the visual journeys through it are so important. But I really appreciate that the broken woman we got at the beginning of the novel has gotten to be:
like anyone, with a life that worried and electrified and overwhelmed her, Ted, long divorced—a grandfather—would visit Sasha at home in the California desert. He would step through a living room strewn with the flotsam of her young kids and watch the western sun blaze through a sliding glass door. And for an instant he would remember Naples: sitting with Sasha in her tiny room; the jolt of surprise and delight he’d felt when the sun finally dropped into the center of her window and was captured inside her circle of wire. Now he turned to her, grinning. Her hair and face were aflame with orange light. “See,” Sasha muttered, eyeing the sun. “It’s mine.”
Our lives are miracles, both on their own and in the way they interact with everyone else’s to form something more complex than we can see in the moment, or even over the sweep of our lives. A novel like this needs an omniscient narrator. It takes someone with a vision this big to understand it all.