Listening to Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad

That is, reading it for the sounds

The universe loves a coincidence, so I happened to start reading Jennifer Egan’s novel A Visit from the Goon Squad the week Ingram Marshall died, and I stumbled on this in the third chapter:

For years people recommended the book to me, almost always because of a rock’n’roll element, and I would try to explain that sleaze nostalgia is not my thing, and that I’m more interested in refrigerators humming than in the same three chords all over again (I meant and mean that literally, not just as a diss on the straightjacket that verse/chorus/verse songwriting can be). Fortunately the book shifts gears pretty quickly (or at least appears to, or at least adds new gears — I’m only four chapters in). And the author has less than kind words for nostalgia in the process. Though that may be a fake-out.

These moments stuck out from the second chapter:

“He listened for muddiness, the sense of actual musicians playing actual instruments in an actual room.”

“the problem was digitization, which sucked the life out of everything that got smeared through its microscopic mesh”

“Nostalgia was the end—everyone knew that.”

The “he” in the first quote is Bennie Salazar, one of the main characters in Goon Squad. The second and third are from the especially (if you’ve read the book, you know what I mean) omniscient narrator, but reflects Bennie’s perspective, and seemingly that of his mentor, Lou, both of them being music industry figures.

For every Bennie who bemoans the rise of digital technology in modern music (and there are a lot of Bennies in that regard), there was someone decades earlier who bemoaned the rise of amplification (there were a lot of those someones, too). Bennie is trapped in his own perspective.

I’m not particularly a Bruce Springsteen fan — having grown up on Long Island, I suffered from overexposure near the source — but I definitely get his fixation on not being stuck in the past: “It’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap.” The line is from “Born to Run,” and it’s directly about leaving behind a town but, like the comically misunderstood “Glory Days” (curse of the chorus, à la Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son”), it’s also about uprooting oneself from the past before it’s too late. I think of Springsteen here because that rough and tumble posturing connects with Bennie’s East Coast record label vibe, and because of his own self-proclaimed old-fashioned-ness.

I think there’s a connection between Bennie’s aesthetic anxiety, in the face of modernity, and the way his brain loops frequently back to the past — in what Egan excellently describes in this chapter as a “memory spasm.” I say “I think” because I haven’t finished the book yet.

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