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.