A Visit from the Geek Squad:
Technology and Time in Egan’s Goon Squad
by Robert Russell
Jennifer Egan’s prize-winning 2010 novel A Visit from the Goon Squad on the surface appears to be a series of thirteen interconnected stories, each a unique vignette capturing a life with all the complications and issues that pervade both the modern era and the burgeoning technological age; however, diving below the surface of the text, a reader will find in Egan’s novel not only an in-depth examination of the transition from the pre-digital era into the digital, where technological innovation threatens to dismantle and reform the systems that have persisted for decades, but also a keen and intelligent exploration of the passage of time. And while the novel appears to combat the oncoming tech revolution, emphasizing the importance in materiality and wholeness over the fragmentary and atomized, taking a stance in favor of the old ways, and, in doing so, attempting to halt or at least slow the rapid movement of time, Egan’s novel instead anticipates the imminent tech wave, recognizes and even embraces the propulsion into a world where new technology foments the deconstruction of music and even language. In the structure of the novel, the record-like series of chapters like songs, a concept-album of interweaving narratives without a singular authoritative voice, is the simulacrum, not of the vinyl record representing an age before Spotify and iTunes and a desire to return to such an age, but of the greatest technological advancement in modern history: the Internet. Egan’s novel foreshows a post-digital age, one where technology has influenced every aspect of life and culture; and in her exploration of time, which comprises the very thread that links each chapter, each character, together, there is a utopian vision and auspicious prospect for the future.
The first detail of the novel which hints toward the technological boom emerges from the transition between chapters. From chapter one, “Found Objects,” to chapter two, “The Gold Cure,” the reader quickly realizes that there is no one, overarching, authoritative, omniscient and omnipotent narrator. Each chapter focuses on a specific character–the first on Sasha, the assistant to record label executive Bennie Salazar who, in turn, is the focus of the subsequent chapter–in a voice that is limited to the confines of that chapter. The first lines of each section announce such a form: “It began the usual way, in the bathroom of the Lassimo Hotel. Sasha was adjusting her yellow eye shadow in the mirror when she noticed a bag on the floor beside the sink that must have belonged to the woman whose peeing she could faintly hear through the vaultlike door of a toilet stall” (Egan 3); Sasha’s story is relayed in the 3rd person singular, limited to the inner workings, thoughts, feelings, and emotions solely of Sasha herself. The same is the case in chapter two which begins: “The shame memories began early that day for Bennie, during the morning meeting, while he listened to one of his senior executives make a case for pulling the plug on Stop/Go, a sister band Bennie had signed to a three-record deal a couple of years back” (Egan 19). Within the first lines of the first two chapters, there is both a change of voice due to the change of point-of-view, one which is limited to the section itself and does not spill over into the succeeding chapter; and also, there is an acute portrayal of time, wherein the past and its “shame memories” seeps into the present. From the onset of the novel, two important structural pillars are established: 1) the transitioning perspectives that not only separate and distinguish each character whose life is depicted in each chapter, but also effectively “decentralizes” the narrator of the novel; and 2) the portrayal of time, a nonlinear representation wherein the past, memories, and flashbacks recur in and impact the present.
The decentralization of a single narrator or voice calls to mind the nature of the Internet, a service which is also decentralized and democratic. There is no singular controller of the World Wide Web, and as the Internet Health Report details,
“Decentralization means the Internet is controlled by many. It’s millions of devices linked together in an open network. No one actor can own it, control it, or switch it off for everyone. The Internet and the World Wide Web remain the biggest decentralized communication system humanity has ever seen. This was very much a part of the design: the inventors of the Web wished for all people to be able to create and access information” (Internet Health Report).
While net neutrality has become something of a hot-button issue as of recent–as cable companies and major social media conglomerates threaten to infringe upon the perceived freedom of the users and “risks to online services are more numerous and varied than ever” (Bogost)–the Internet as a whole remains decentralized and largely democratic since there is no one governing body dictating the rules and regulations to impede users’ agency on the Net. Users are able to engage and communicate, traversing the classical barriers that would have thwarted such contact before such technology. Egan’s novel, in its structure, performs a similar feat: bridging the gap between reader and text and demanding a certain kind of engagement and interaction that is different from the classical, conventional forms of reading.
Beyond the interconnected web of stories that comprise Egan’s novel, there is one chapter in which the form of the text itself disrupts the conventionality of the modern novel and forces the reader to interact with the narrative: chapter twelve, “Great Rock and Roll Pauses by Alison Blake” (Egan 235). This segment of the novel departs from the rest as the conventional form switches into slides of a PowerPoint presentation which are situated horizontally. The pages of the novel force the reader to physically turn the novel 45 degrees clockwise and flip the pages “bottom up” rather than the conventional form from right to left. And while the reader continues to read left-to-right during this section, in some places they are forced to select which direction to follow so as to find the route that makes most sense. Not only is it a departure from the classical form of reading, but that Egan uses a PowerPoint as the medium of textuality further remarks on the burgeoning technological age. In an interview with Rumpus, she said:
“Initially, I thought, I really want to write fiction in PowerPoint, but I also thought, it’s kind of sad that I want to write fiction in PowerPoint. But in fact, while I was using PowerPoint, I found that there was a kind of beauty to writing that way that was distinct from conventional fiction, and that I really believed in and enjoyed… While I have a kind of dread about where the culture is going, I feel like when I engage with the forces I dread in fiction I often end up finding more value in them than I expected to, intellectually” (Michod).
Egan uses creativity as a mode to make a commentary on the speculative role that technology plays (and will play) in regards to storytelling and fiction. Alison uses PowerPoint as “slide journal” (Egan 253), keeping log of her mother Sasha’s “Annoying Habits” as well as the many quotidian details of her day. Alison’s virtual journal precedes the common blog, one which, today, might be found on MySpace or Tumblr. However, there is another element in this chapter that alludes to a more advance technological feat. Not only is navigating Alison’s PowerPoint similar to navigating a website, but the diagrams she uses to convey her inner monologue eerily resemble an algorithm. In computer science and programming, algorithms can take many diverse forms; however, common in the development of an algorithm is a series of diagrams and arrows which together comprise a sequence of operations. As Alison uses diagrams and arrows to narrate a story, in particular detailing the relationship she has with her father, so algorithms similarly convey a message, use coding language in order to transmit that message, and ultimately achieve a certain goal. There is a connection here between language and technology, between words and code. Algorithms are the foundation of innumerable technological devices including the Internet, just as words are the foundation of a narrative, of a novel, such as Egan’s Goon Squad.
Also, Alison’s PowerPoint chapter portrays the inescapability of time, a frequent recurring motif in Egan’s novel. In this chapter, Alison takes a long walk with her father far into the desert where they happen upon the field of solar panels which “go on for miles” and “look evil” but are “actually mending the Earth” (Egan 291). Alison goes on to describe the solar panels as a time machine in a slide entitled: “What I’m Afraid Of” – “That the solar panels were a time machine. That I’m a grownup woman coming back to this place after many years” (Egan 299). Alison experiences a certain anxiety in the recognition that the solar panels represent a glimpse into the future; that though they are technological advances that will “mend the Earth,” there is still an uncertainty of what her life will become. Fear lies in the unknown. Scholar Ivan Krielkamp writes in his critical work on the novel that,
“Alison’s fleeting nightmare offers…a magical vision of a disturbing possible future that (as it turns out) can still be forestalled. Or, perhaps, it is more accurate to say that Alison is granted a version of a future she cannot forestall–one in which she has grown up and her family has been dispersed–but in such a way that allows her to appreciate the time she still has left in that family as a child” (Krielkamp 36).
Alison’s encounter with the solar panels solidifies a connection between technology and time, one wherein there is a dualistic perception of the positive and negative, of the benefits and detriments, of hope and fear for the future. Whereas Egan’s exploration of time heretofore has comprised of flashbacks and unsavory memories jumping from the past into the present, here Alison jumps into the future, one tinged with uncertainty and unpredictability. Krielkamp adds, “Egan’s novel at certain moments revels in its function as a time-defying device, a means by which aesthetically to stop, reverse, struggle against, or step entirely outside of time” (Krielkamp 38). Egan’s novel acts a vehicle through which the reader is able to objectively view time, navigate through the lives that are inherently linked, and explore the ways in which people are interconnected. In a chapter such as Alison’s PowerPoint presentation, the reader is commanded to engage–the reader becomes a user, a participant, a navigator of the interconnected web of individuals which propagates through the passage of time.
Such an engagement resembles what millions of people do every single day when they sit down at their desk and log on to their computers. Not only is the Internet itself a web of communication, one which requires engagement and participation from the user, but the Internet itself is also a “time-defying device.” The infinite amount articles and news-posts, the countless photos and videos, blog posts and tweets, messages and pins, comments and likes, etc.–all of the activity which takes place on the Internet is time-stamped. Each article has a date when it was published; every YouTube video contains a date posted; each photo on Google Images is of a singular moment in time, a single instant captured which now lives on into infinity in the virtual space of the Internet. When a person opens their laptop and begins scrolling, they soar into a space above the totality of the Internet, and look down upon the singular instants which make up of web of information, a mosaic of data, each a tiny moment in time. As Egan’s novel requests the reader to take a bird’s-eye view of life, to stand back and look into the various lives with combine and coalesce to create a web of interconnectedness which spans across space and time, the Internet offers such a perspective as well. Scholar David Cowart writes, “Egan’s novel, which foregrounds a temporal thematic as old as Ecclesiastes, invites its readers to assemble a complete chronology” and such an invitation resembles what is ever-present on the Internet: the assemblage of communication, a collage of connection. A Visit from the Goon Squad is not just a novel which preaches the significance of vinyl records and proclaims the importance of a time before technology atomized such enjoyable aspects of culture; it is novel that paints a sweeping portrait of time, one wherein the lives of individuals, of strangers, are all seemingly connected, bound by a thread of humanity which stretches past impenetrable barriers. And in such a painting is an augur of technological innovation that is not foreboding but promising, auspicious, and invigorating.
Bogost, Ian. “So Much for the Decentralized Internet” The Atlantic, 26 July 2020, theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2020/07/twitter-hack-decentralized-internet/614593/. Accessed 27 April 2021.
Cowart, David. “Thirteen Ways of Looking: Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad.” The Tribe of Pyn: Literary Generations in the Postmodern Period, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 2015, pp. 175–191. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.3998/mpub.8296268.15. Accessed 14 Apr. 2021.
Egan, Jennifer. A Visit from the Goon Squad, Anchor Books, 2010.
Kreilkamp, Ivan. A Visit from the Goon Squad Reread, Columbia University press, 2021.
Michod, Alec. “The Rumpus Interview with Jennifer Egan,” Rumpus, 23 June 2010, therumpus.net/2010/06/the-rumpus-interview-with-jennifer-egan/. Accessed 14 April 2021.
“Who Controls the Internet?” Internet Health Report, 27 April 2021, www.internethealthreport.org/v01/decentralization/#:~:text=Decentralization%20means %20the%20Internet%20is,system%20humanity%20has%20ever%20seen.