Saturday, August 11, 2012

Time is a Goon, but Facebook is a Spirit Realm

I've been making a conscious effort lately to get away from screens and back to the realm of the books that were my first and are my greatest love. I've recently read and enjoyed The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, Shadow And Bone, The Night Circus, Something Fresh, and today I finished A Visit from the Goon Squad. I was aware of the buzz around this book even before it won the Pulitzer, because I knew the music business setting would appeal to me,* and that Jennifer Egan is close enough to my age that (despite the wide chronological range of the book) I would probably be able to relate to her viewpoint, the reflection of her personal experience, however refracted by fiction.

I was right. I love this book for the reasons I thought I would, but also because one of the themes--THE theme--is one that I've been thinking about a lot lately. "Time is a goon," two characters say, and time strong-arms everyone in the book, takes them on trips they didn't expect to take, ending up in places they didn't expect to be. Quite a few of them are happy, but not happy in the way they expected. I especially like Egan's subtle portrayal of the near future in the last two chapters--the consequences of climate change (although I think she may overplay that), national security concerns, economic woes, and above all, social media.

In an earlier chapter Egan has some of her characters, NYU students in the early 90s, out on the town. Bix, a grad student in electrical engineering, is often on his computer, sending messages to other people on computers to the mystification of his friends. One night--one of those crazy college nights when it gets really late and you end up in a group of people who are indirectly related because your direct connections have gone home or elsewhere (okay, in the book this is also fueled by Ecstasy with which I have no experience)--a character says "Let's remember this day, even when we don't know each other anymore."

"Oh, we'll know each other forever," Bix says. "The days of losing touch are almost gone."
"What does that mean?" Drew asks.
"We're going to meet again in a different place," Bix says. "Everyone we've lost, we'll find. Or they'll find us."
"Where? How?" Drew asks.
Bix hesitates, like he's held this secret so long he's afraid of what will happen when he releases it into the air. "I picture it like Judgment Day," he says finally, his eyes on the water. "We'll rise up out of our bodies and find each other again in spirit form. We'll meet in that new place, all of us together, and first it'll seem strange, and pretty soon it'll seem strange that you could ever lose someone, or get lost."

*I have a weird relationship to music. I like to sing and to play the piano, and I like to listen to music--sometimes to one song, obsessively--but I never really learned how to talk about it. Partly I don't seem to want to know how the sausage gets made. Mostly when I read reviews or music journalism I can't get what my brother-in-law calls "eye traction." I need a personal connection. That's why I can read CoolDad Music, and that's why--despite averting my eyes from the real music business--I always enjoy fiction set in the music business. I had a tiny bit of experience sitting in on rehearsals and going to shows and being on the fringiest fringy fringes of punk, too. That goon, time, dipped me there before he flung me here. And the people who were there with me are my Facebook friends and my IRL friends.


Jim said...

I remember really enjoying A Visit from the Goon Squad . It was a while ago, though, so I don't remember too many of the specifics, just that I loved that Egan structured it like an LP.

That passage makes me think of that book, written by some physicist, that claims that we'll all live on forever as software once there's a computer powerful enough to randomly conceive of the mathematical construct that is each one of us. I'll bet that guy didn't even think of the fact that Facebook would just never really delete your profile.

ChaumiereLesIris said...

I read it this year too. I wanted to run out and read everything else Jennifer Egan has written, right away. I thought it was brilliant - like you, the themes, and the way the stories unfolded, with time itself becoming an object you have to unwrap. Brilliant.