Welcome back to the Know Me Betterman blog series, which features various fascinating people I know talking about the books they love. (Forgot what Know Me Betterman is? Click here.) This week I'm thrilled to be hosting one of my oldest friends and fellow writer Wesley Straton: excellent baker, world traveler, and ukelele-badass.
It was 2011—July, about a month and a half after graduation. I’m from Northern California, but I went to Amherst College out in Massachusetts, and I spent that last summer doing a victory lap of sorts visiting friends throughout New England. Behind me lay four years of a school that had become my home; before me, a working holiday in New Zealand. I was in Boston, days from flying back to California, when three of my friends demanded to know why I hadn’t read this new Jennifer Egan book yet.
A Visit from the Goon Squad is more a tightly interwoven collection of short stories than a novel. It tracks an interconnected group of characters across decades and continents, from the heyday of San Francisco punk into Egan’s version of the future. We open with Sasha, a kleptomaniac New Yorker working for Bennie Salazar, a wildly successful record executive. Then we meet Bennie’s mentor, Lou (an older, seedier record executive), and Bennie’s childhood best friend, Scotty (who spends his adult days on the fringes of New York society). Next, Bennie’s ex-wife Stephanie, Stephanie’s infamous brother Jules, and the once-popular starlet Jules famously assaulted, Kitty Jackson. To name but a few.
So what will this mess of characters and stories tell you about me? Let’s start with the musical side of things:
“Oh, the raw, almost-threadbare sound of their voices mixed with the clash of instruments—these sensations met with a faculty deeper in Bennie than judgment or even pleasure; they communed directly with his body, whose shivering, bursting reply made him dizzy…He felt the music in his mouth, his years, his ribs—or was that his own pulse? He was on fire!”
One of the early stories in Goon Squad details the awkward high school days of Rhea in late-1970s San Francisco. Rhea and her friends have a band called The Flaming Dildos and spend their weekends watching gigs at the Mabuhay Gardens. Rhea worries about being unloved and overlooked, and agonizes over how to become a real punk. She hates her freckles and dyes her hair green “because how can anyone call me ‘the girl with freckles’ when my hair is green?” But ultimately she’s an observer in her own story, watching as Bennie and Scotty’s band plays its first real show, watching as her best friend, Jocelyn, begins an affair with Lou.
I was much better behaved than Rhea at her age (no cocaine or older men for me), but I feel a definite kinship with her. I had bad skin and dyed hair in high school, and while I was more of a nerd than a punk, I too spent my teenage years feeling invisible and retreating into music. Where she had the Avengers and the Germs, I had my punk-influenced indie bands: the unholy trinity of The Libertines, the Strokes, and the Vines, and various other early-2000s rock outfits. The Mabuhay Gardens closed in 1986, but we had newer San Francisco venues like the Fillmore, Great American Music Hall, and Slim’s. Like Rhea, my love of music was the defining factor of that time in my life. My closest friends were other indie-obsessed nerds, and we even formed a band for a couple of years.
From there I went off to college, where my nerdiness was less pronounced (the advantage of attending a school like Amherst is that most of the students were academic and uncool in high school, so I fit right in). I joined the campus radio station, and my music taste has continued to be an important part of my life and identity.
“Time’s a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?”
Scotty shook his head. “The goon won.”
If Egan is interested in music, she is downright fascinated by the passage of time. She uses foreshadowing and flashbacks with abandon, and throughout Goon Squad we revisit the major players of the books at various points of their lives, watching the years change them. Jocelyn becomes a lonely, depressed alcoholic, while Rhea grows up into a contented mother of three. We see Lou before his affair with Jocelyn, on a safari in Africa with his young children, then see years later, on his deathbed in Southern California. Bennie, first Rhea’s love interest, appears later as cheating husband in Connecticut suburbia, as a disillusioned record executive, and in the book’s final story, middle-aged and irrelevant.
Egan’s fixation with time relates not just to the characters but also to the world in which they live: she paints us a deeply weird, dystopian image of the future. Military helicopters circle endlessly over New York City, people sitting side-by-side text rather than speaking, and toddlers (strange as it may sound) control the music industry. While some of Egan’s characters embrace the new world, most of them mourn the one they’ve lost.
Encountering this book as I did right after college, at a time of intense, premature nostalgia, the “time is a goon” refrain struck a chord with me. My childhood was ending, and the future was daunting and uncharted. Moreover, like many of Egan’s characters, I seem to have a predilection for dead and dying art forms. I mentioned radio already; while podcasts and internet radio are thriving, the traditional, analogue version I grew to love in college is rapidly vanishing. I devoted many years of my life to studying analogue photography, and that, too, is a thing of the past—film and processing materials become more expensive and less accessible every year. Even the traditional forms of the music and publishing industries are dying away. I also share some of Egan’s technophobia—I respect the usefulness and even necessity of social media and information technology, but I also don’t like to spend too much time online and dread the day that I have to trade in my $30 brick phone for a smartphone.
So there you have it: I’m a music-obsessed, technophobic nerd with a fondness for antiquated art forms and a fear of the future. But also I just really like A Visit from the Goon Squad, and I think you would, too.
Wesley Straton is a writer and wanderer living in Australia. Her previous ports of call include New Zealand, Thailand, and Spain, and once upon a time she came from Northern California. She likes taking pictures and baking things, and she is partial to a good cup of coffee or a nice whisky. Her baking exploits can be found here and more of her writing can be seen on her tumblr.