Jennifer Egan, “Great Rock and Roll Pauses,” in A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010)

by Carl Wilson

Elvis Costello, “Goon Squad,” 1979. Number of pauses: 6. Pause length: 1 second (each).

Jennifer Egan’s recent A Visit from the Goon Squad is on one level a conventional novel, with (it becomes clear) a central character and an interrelated ensemble whose lives, inner and outer, are explored over time – time itself being the “goon squad” of the title, the random merciless attacker that leaves everyone ravaged.

But on another it’s an answer to the dilemma of the experimental or the postmodern, taking for granted the breakdown of linear narrative, and the freedoms previous generations of artists have established for her. Since obviously you can do anything you want, the question becomes what’s worth doing.

Formally the book is more like a set of linked stories; every story is from a different character’s point of view, and each story is (not just for that reason) in its own style, to varying degrees. This risks a showoffy writing-workshop effect that could be irritating. It’s not, because what Egan values is emotional truth and all the technique is just a way of getting there. (As she discusses, graphically, with The Rumpus.)

The most bravura moment is Chapter 12, which takes place in the near future, in the desert, and is narrated by a 12-year-old girl in PowerPoint slides. You can read/watch the story (with audio enhancement) on Egan’s website. (Though it’s much better if you read it in context.) She was inspired by reading in the NY Times that the Obama campaign had been turned around when someone on staff made a PowerPoint presentation explaining where they were going wrong. She realized “a PowerPoint” had become a genre, a recognizable mode of thought and representation. So just as she might write a chapter in the form of a magazine article, why not as a PowerPoint? (She didn’t have the program and at first tried to make her graphics by hand; now she makes fun of herself for this.) (Egan talks about the process.)

Many of the characters get involved in various ways in the music industry in the 1990s, so one way the goon squad catches up with them is technologically. By switching into PowerPoint, Egan teases at the parallel threat of obsolescence to her own medium – print, or more broadly the book, story, sentence, paragraph. The web (and, I’d imagine, e-book) version operates like real PowerPoint, but it’s funnier to have a kind of dead PowerPoint show in a book, manually turning pages instead of watching slides slip smoothly by. The chapter makes me think of how many of the non-fiction writers I know have had to learn to make such visual presentations, to be public speakers, or make video trailers for our books, and so on.

I missed my Wednesday post here last week because I was (a) moving; and (b) writing a profile for The Globe and Mail about the Montreal band Arcade Fire. People sometimes think the members of Arcade Fire are trying to be reclusive or guarded because they don’t do interviews whenever asked or update their Facebook status or send out a lot of tweets about what they’re doing. They’ve tried to explain that they’d like to be more accessible and meet fans’ expectations (expectations that didn’t exist five years ago ) but are simply too busy actually working on music, which, the way they want to do it, takes enormous energy all day, every day.

Something in the air right now makes this sound like an alibi. Part of me wants to complain on my own behalf – that it makes no sense to ask writers to be public speakers when the two activities demand almost directly contradictory sets of skills. But no one’s forcing you, as long as you’re content not to make any money. And as Egan’s PowerPoint chapter shows, learning new tools doesn’t have to undermine the essence of your activity, as long as you don’t let the marketing department tell you how to use them.

A few years ago I felt pretty persuaded by writers such as Edward Tufte and Ian Parker that PowerPoint nurtures an impoverished cognitive style. (In Egan’s story, the 12-year-old’s mother, Sasha, whom we know and care about from previous stories in the book, seems to believe this, or is at least wary that her daughter keeps her diary in slides rather than in a little notebook, maybe with a golden lock.) But then I began to see people using it less obviously, in manners not dictated by Microsoft’s presets. David Byrne started using it for parody and then found himself rather enchanted. As in any new genre, primitive firsts give way to a more sophisticated, self-reflexive array.

New genres are called for when there are new kinds of people. Twentieth-century urbanism summoned up noir, and jazz. The Internet is arguably rearranging the boundaries of selves. So artists need to notice and respond (not necessarily enthusiastically but somehow effectively), not whine, “But I only wanted to be a writer.”

Egan builds all kinds of mini-auto-critique machines into her PowerPoint – its centre is the whole family’s relationship to the narrator’s autism-spectrum brother, so affective disconnection is highlighted (though the empathic narrator uses PowerPoint because everybody at school does, so it is actually evidence of being right in the human tide, not of isolation by technology); the brother is fixated on pauses (gaps, disconnects) within mostly old-fashioned, 20th-century pop music, though it’s vital that these gaps also become joins – a pause, by definition, resumes. And of course the slides of the PowerPoint contain built-in pauses.

The reading process is broken up as well, because the eye has to decide where to go, in what order to put the cells of meaning in each slide, because it’s no longer a given of the old left-right, top-bottom grid. And in this the chapter is a microcosm of the whole book, which is a Rubik’s Cube of jumbled characters and chronologies and settings (though their particular sequence is important), within which much of the deepest feeling is found in seams and spaces between the narratives, so the reader has to infer how these people have been broken, rescued, grown, or sundered, in interludes and meanwhiles we’re not directly shown.

One last little irony: Because I was moving, and was spending days and days packing and unpacking boxes (more pauses, more gaps, more cells of meaning), I downloaded and listened to Visit from the Goon Squad as an audiobook. (Audiobooks = sanity savers for the solitary mover, by the way.) I haven’t read it – it was read to me. So when it came to “Great Rock and Roll Pauses,” I didn’t immediately get what was going on. There was a slide-projector sound effect between units, but the conscientious and excellent actor had figured out how to read each slide so that it seemed more conversational or interior-monologue-like than like a set of arrows or graphs or charts. So I didn’t really experience the “difficult” aspect of reading this chapter. It was more like a smart format for a radio monologue, a different experiment than the one Egan spent all those hours learning to do.

The story also made me cry a little, a quick moment of helpless, stinging salt. Nicholson Baker has claimed that some literary passages are funny on the page, but not on a Kindle – and then funny again on an iPad. I wonder if I would have wept over “Great Rock and Roll Pauses” in all its different possible media, which perhaps each comes with a structure of feeling or engenders one.

Maybe what worries me about every artist, no matter what their discipline, having to be a kind of multi-media artist is really whether there’s enough time to do all the rethinking and reinvention that should go into the translation between forms. Do you risk having much of the audience encounter the work in some kind of compromised state and never at its best? Perhaps we’ll just have to learn how to leave things unfinished in a way that’s more adaptable, and rely on groups of technicians (editors, remixers, post-production), as most film directors must?

We’ll see, if the goon squad doesn’t get us first.

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