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A visit from the Goon Squad

by Jennifer Egan

  Print book : Fiction  |  First edition

In Search of Lost Mosh Pit Time, ELC review   (2014-03-25)


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by vleighton

I started out enjoying this book a great deal, and I still enjoyed it mostly toward the end, though less so. Egan enjoys invention, and she is technically gifted. Her observation is keen. I found the online texts of interviews with Egan helpful, especially when she explained that the book is like a "concept album" from the era of 1970s rock music, like Pink Floyd's "The Wall." Each chapter is like a track on an old LP (long playing) vinyl record, connected but separate, and the book is divided into side A and side B. That helps explain the fact that the book is halfway between a novel and a collection of short stories. It is tighter than Silber's book *Ideas of Heaven*, but less tightly organized than Rhodes' novel *Driftless*. In the end, though, I think the book ends with a too comforting vision.

For me, the negatives of the book are that it becomes a bit too sentimental and obvious. It is clearly spelled out that Time is the goon, and that each of the characters struggles to deal with the losses and ravages of time. The PowerPoint chapter was a bit too much of a pat happy ending to Sasha's story for my tastes. Sure, her family has its problems, but she married the hunky all-American who is a caring family man and selfless doctor. Hmmm. Even the last chapter is a bit too rose-tinted, with Scotty, of all people, making a huge come-back. I much preferred him toothless, wielding a fish. Even the connection to Proust is laid out clearly in the epigraph from *In Search of Lost Time*. You can enjoy the book if you don't expect too much of it. The problem is, with Egan gesturing to Proust, she is aiming high.


This text is both celebrated and ignored. The popular press, such as Publisher's Weekly and the New York Times Book Review, touts it as a classic, and it won the Pulitzer Prize, but there is not a single entry in the Modern Language Association Bibliography. What is unusual about the book is that it displays the skill needed to be categorized as literary fiction, while at the same time being accessible to the public that does not read literary fiction. That, I think, is the reason for the ballyhooing by the popular press. They are hoping to draw in the younger crowd who usually don't read books at all.


Evolutionary Literary Criticism


Because I have been reading evolutionary literary criticism, it has occurred to me that I should be trying to apply it at every turn. So here is my attempt with this text.


Evolutionary Literary Theory Boilerplate


For theory, I will be drawing primarily on the collection "The Literary Animal" (abbreviated below as TLA) edited by Gottschall, and Gottschall's own book, "The Storytelling Animal" (TSA). One problem with offering an evolutionary interpretation of a text is that there are three different versions of evolutionary literary criticism (ELC). So we need to comment on the story's relationship to each of the three versions.


The first (ELC1) simply observes that humans are fascinated by stories featuring survival, social status, and mating themes (boy loses girl, maiden guarded by dragon, boy hangs from cliff, etc.). To be an effective story, a page-turner, the text should play out a behavioral strategy that would be valid from an evolutionary point of view. So we might learn as much about evolutionarily valid strategies from the text as we learn about the text from evolutionary theory. And we could profitably study the common themes of a genre, not just this particular text. In TLA, this line is promoted by McEwan, Nettle, Carroll, Nordlund, Fox, Gottschall himself, Kruger, and Salmon.


The second version (ELC2) is to emphasize that storytelling itself is an adaptation, and that humans are wired to enjoy and transmit stories. In TLA, this position is presented by Boyd and Sugiyama, and it is the thesis of Gottschall's own book, TSA. ELC2 also allows one to explore the degree to which the author intentionally (or perhaps unintentionally) tries to conform to or challenge the expectations of a genre. In other words, how good of a job did the author do telling the tale, and how was it received by the readers or listeners?


The third version (ELC3) is that stories have been a method of storing cultural information throughout human history, and as such, they preserve cultural entities and allow for cultural evolution. Stories here include religious texts and political histories. This position is argued by David Sloan Wilson's essay in TLA and by Gottschall in TSA to a limited degree. Wilson's position is partially related to version one, in that he says that human nature is not infinitely flexible, and texts that stray too far from evolutionarily interesting themes will fail to be embraced and retold. But Wilson's position also allows for a sort of historicism or ideological critique, in which the subtext of a narrative or of its reception might be to support the current cultural status quo or to advocate for a different cultural state. So the cultural meaning of a text might be quite different from what the author had in mind when it was written. Culturally powerful factions within a society may promote a story that justifies their own hegemony.

ELC3 should also encompass the use of a storytelling tradition to indicate group membership. Knowledge of a canon of stories, or the proper form of a storytelling genre, can act as the sign of worthiness for membership as much as any other demonstration of mastery of a behavior or belief system. Reading Joyce's Ulysses may not keep you riveted at the edge of your seat turning the pages (ELC2), and it may not recount the harrowing adventures of survival or the boy getting the girl (ELC1), but having read the book might indicate the membership of the reader within a social class. It indicates both the ability to perform the task and the value system of the group. To be knowledgable about the details of a large canon of stories, whether it is Proust's In Search of Lost Time or the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you must first have the ability and free time to learn those details, and you must also have the inner motivation to learn them, a motivation often achieved by belonging to a group that considers them worth knowing. Establishing one's worthiness for membership in any group potentially allows one to share in the tangible benefits of the group (resources, social hierarchy, etc.), whether or not one is consciously aware of such benefits. For example, the shipwrecked Odysseus was treated as noble because he demonstrated mastery of a particular behavior—an aristocratic form of address.


Visit From the Goon Squad via ELC1


So how can the major themes of the book demonstrate valid behavioral strategies within evolutionary psychology (EP)? To start with, *Visit* seems to try to defy genre, so it is not enough to study the themes that typify the genre. As to the characters and their path in life, many do display behavior that conforms to theories of EP. The tale called "Safari" is a classic story of sexual intrigue. Lou ends up marrying Mindy to prove that he is dominant over Albert, but Albert had the qualities of bravery and independence that drew Mindy to have sex with him. Bennie likewise conforms to the EP model that a high-status male will try to mate with many women.

Other themes that conform to EP include the lives of Sasha, Rob, and Kitty. Sasha's struggles through the whole book with keeping her life together. At first, she flees stability, but in the end she chooses to build a stable family with the desirable and nurturing Drew. "Out of Body" is told in second-person, and it is the story of Rob, torn apart partly because he cannot fit into the society and cannot win Sasha as his mate. "Selling the General" and "Forty-Minute Lunch" show men who want to possess Kitty Jackson sexually and are only prevented from doing so by others in the society (managers and journalists) making such a possession untenable. Kitty is launched into fame by Jules Jones' failed attack on her.


The successful music career is one in which the performer gambles it all to gain the acceptance of the masses. It is an ambition for greatness that usually ends in failure. Lou and Bennie make careers out of finding such talent and living off a cut of the successful ones. Scotty and Bosco both go through periods of failure. Bosco tries to kill himself through performing while unhealthy, but he ends up recovering and owning a dairy farm. Scotty's rehabilitation comes at the end of the book after even more obscurity. Part of the reason that both of those happy endings are unbelievable is the high unlikelihood of the washed-up male recovering with anything resembling success. It can happen, but there was nothing in the story to indicate that it ought to happen.


Nevertheless, as TSA explains, stories are moralistic. We often hunger to see poetic justice, just desserts. The problem with this book is that often the characters get more than they deserve. There should be no second helpings on just desserts.


Visit From the Goon Squad via ELC2


ELC2 deals with the human need to experience narratives. Here, the tragic story of Rob binds Sasha and Drew together. All of the early characters, whether Bennie and Scotty or Rhea and Jocelyn, give their all to inhabit the story of the glamour of rock music. The finale involves paid recommenders creating a buzz for a great career revival, which is why Scotty's concert should have been a bust. The reason paid recommenders are shunned is because the masses are hungering for an authentic hero.


The second point of ELC2: is the narrative a well-told tale? In one sense, it is. Each track/chapter works fairly well as a stand-alone. The book is a quick read with plenty of action. But the final chord seemed to hit a false note. Authors can try to aim their work at two (or more) different audiences. Here, Egan is clearly reaching for both the high-brow, Proust-reading crowd and the ADHD punk rock listener. I think she hit the latter, but perhaps missed the former.


Visit From the Goon Squad via ELC3


ELC3 deals with what cultural significance the narrative has in terms of group selection and cultural evolution. *Visit* seems to be a bit too easy. It has many fine points, but there is no rallying point for the revolutionaries or the elite. Not having been a fan of punk rock, I may be out of my element here. Egan may have subtle references to punk rock that I have missed, references that create a group to which I am not invited.

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