Modernity’s Undoing

Pankaj Mishra

  • A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
    Corsair, 336 pp, £14.99, March 2011, ISBN 978 1 78033 028 0

‘America created the 20th century,’ Gertrude Stein wrote in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, ‘and since all the other countries are now either living or commencing to be living a 20th-century life, America having begun the creation of the 20th century in the sixties of the 19th century is now the oldest country in the world.’ She meant, quite reasonably, that America was the oldest country in the world because it was the first to be modern. By 1933, Stein had already witnessed the industrialisation of America and the new technologies of standardisation and control unleashed by Fordism and Taylorism. Had she lived longer into the 20th century, one can only imagine what she would have made of the many organisation men, hidden persuaders and lonely crowds still to come, or of the other ideological prisons created by the national security state and the Cold War. It already seems as if it was a long time ago that America, transitioning from industrial to consumer capitalism, lurched into the age of postmodernity. The brisk destruction of old ways and the foreclosing of possibilities have become such an accepted fact – not least in the social sciences, from Daniel Bell to Fredric Jameson – that it is easy to forget what a large-scale re-engineering of human lives they have led to. Jennifer Egan, an American writer, is rare for still being able to register incredulity at the weirdness of this process. In her novel Look at Me (2001), she makes one of her main characters, an isolated intellectual, spell it all out: The ‘narrative of industrial America began with the rationalisation of objects through standardisation, abstraction and mass production’, and has concluded ‘with the rationalisation of human beings through marketing, public relations, image consulting and spin’.

Stein’s theory of America’s antiquity, which seems even more persuasive today as the country feels its age beside such late-coming upstarts to the modern world as China and India, has implications for how we see American literature. Henry James may have lamented the social thinness of American history, and its apparent inability to generate great writing, but Stein’s formulation makes James look like an incorrigible 19th-century Europhile who failed to recognise that history specifically enjoined American novelists to describe the strange new mutations in individual and social life caused by the reorganisation of work, consumption and war. The masters of this quintessentially American literature have been Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo, prophets of Cold War paranoia, rather than Philip Roth and Jonathan Franzen, or all the chroniclers of the immigrant experience from Henry Roth to Jhumpa Lahiri. Pynchon and DeLillo have had oddly few successors, even though the end of the Cold War, with the apparent triumph of American-style capitalism, only accelerated the ‘global momentum’ that, as DeLillo wrote after 9/11, ‘drives unmindfully toward a landscape of consumer-robots and social instability’.

Most readers, as DeLillo sardonically complained, ‘would rather read about their own marriages and separations and trips to Tanglewood’, since ‘it adds a certain lustre, a certain significance to their own lives.’ There are considerable formal difficulties involved in moving away from that ‘entire school of American fiction’ that DeLillo defined as ‘around-the-house-and-in-the-yard’. The peculiar realities, dreams and fears of public life – ruthless corporations, terrorist sleeper cells, imperial presidencies, remote wars – can lead to an oppressive shapelessness, unsuited to the plot-driven mimetic realism minted in the 19th century. The strain on language can be too great; the attempted fusion of the political with the personal can take on a bewilderingly occult quality.

But there is no theoretical reason why abstraction should be incompatible with storytelling, why the old-fashioned novel of the individual in society can’t bring with it an awareness of the vast, globalised world. The virtues of the realist tradition – irony, historical texture and a strong point of view – can be combined with a modernist aesthetic of fragmentation and dissolution. Though critically neglected when it was first published, Look at Me was one such synthesis. Its carefully interlinked characters cover a broad social canvas (New York, the Midwest) and include a fashion model with a surgically reconstructed face, a Middle-Eastern terrorist, a sexually avid small-town teenager and a brooding academic. Its various sincere first-person and satirically edged third-person narratives describe a multiplicity of small narcissisms. It’s a funhouse mirror maze, from which one emerges with a conviction that the human self is incoherent, and that reality itself is an unstable aggregate of random perceptions. But the novel itself generates such large ideas out of a historically specific postmodern setting: the many stories it tells all embody the American obsession with identity and image, and the perennial quest for self-esteem and recognition (which, as Walter Benn Michaels argues, helps obscure the fact of widening economic and social inequality in the US). Its adventurous and well-briefed forays into popular culture – a regular feature of Egan’s fiction – have anticipated more contemporary forms of exhibitionism (reality TV, blogs, Facebook). And it has a plot that ingeniously seems to be winding down rather than up.

Egan had previously published The Invisible Circus, a novel, and a collection of short fiction, Emerald City. These books describe the vulnerability and unexpected self-reckonings of the provincial in New York and the American abroad; their terse lyricism, and worldly wisdom about the workings of power, bring to mind the short stories of Paul Bowles and Deborah Eisenberg. Remarkably for a writer of her generation (she was born in 1962), Egan seemed like an expatriate, looking back with biting irony at her fellow Americans and their insufficiently examined expectations of wealth, comfort, beauty and fame. In ‘Why China?’, a bond trader, fleeing potential disgrace at work, has dragged his reluctant family to China; there, he unexpectedly turns against his own daughters, ‘blonde, expensive-looking creatures’. He contrasts them with the Masai children he once saw in Kenya, and finds himself staring at them ‘accusingly, awaiting some acknowledgment from them of the brutal disparity between the Masai kids’ lives and their own’. Instead, he finds in their beauty ‘a righteousness’ that galls him.

Egan’s short fiction shows a mastery of elliptical dialogue, the art of impregnating silences with moral unease. In ‘Letter to Josephine’, a young suburban woman confides to her friend a marriage proposal from an affluent suitor.

‘You’ll be so rich!’ She laughed softly.

‘Josephine!’ It sounded cheap to hear her say it.

‘But come on,’ Josephine said, seemingly puzzled by Lucy’s hesitation.‘The guy’s a millionaire.’

‘I know, but …’

‘Well, admit it, for God’s sake.’

  There was an awkward pause. Lucy felt she must say something, that it must be the right thing.

But there is no right thing to say about this deeply rooted predilection for easy wealth and privilege. The seduction, as it turns out with most of Egan’s characters, is already complete; and what her fiction measures is the precise degree of delusion and disappointment in the totally administered society. Only those coming late to America and its insidious corruptions – such as Aziz, the Middle-Eastern terrorist in Look at Me – try to resist it. But – and this was Look at Me’s precocious insight into what now seems an over-discussed phenomenon – it is often the fear of seduction by America that provokes its adversaries into nihilistic violence:

At night, they watched TV. Aziz and his gaunt compatriots crammed together onto a foam-rubber couch that stank of Ralph Lauren cologne and butchery; they huddled like pigeons, craving the anaesthesia that issued from that screen, the tranquillising rays: cars animate as human faces; breakfast cereals adrift in the whitest milk Aziz had ever seen; juice erupting from phosphorescent oranges … And even as the anaesthesia worked upon Aziz, even as his mouth fell open, eyelids splayed helplessly to admit these sights, hands curled like an infant’s, he was aware of the rage waving like a flag near his heart, reminding him that this hypnosis was a conspiracy at work, whereby a seed of longing was implanted forever in one’s thoughts … If fighting the conspiracy had reduced him, that loss merely strengthened his grim and patient will to destroy it.

Look at Me was published a week after the terrorist attacks on 9/11, and suffered the disadvantage of appearing too topical. Terrorism and the fashion industry were too obviously Egan’s preoccupations, even though in the novel’s bigger picture these phenomena were symptoms of a deeper and more widespread malaise: the steady disappearance of reality, and its replacement with such pseudo-substitutes as ‘authentic’ selfhood.

Look at Me’s real theme is pursued, though not exclusively, through the character of a disgraced academic, Moose. Following in the American line of solitary prophets – both real, like the Unabomber, and those invented by DeLillo – Moose ponders ‘appearances disjoined from anything real, afloat upon nothing, in the service of nothing, cut off from every source of blood and life’. Languishing in his post-industrial Midwestern town, he mourns the world of ‘things’, of actual ‘objects existing in time and space’, which ‘had lost their allure generations ago, shunted off to countries where people would make them for less’: they had been replaced by information, which was ‘the inversion of a thing; without shape or location or component parts’.

No one will mistake Look at Me for an abstract ‘novel of ideas’: Egan is too invested in the pleasures of narrative. Her fiction never appears melodramatically political, ideologically driven or self-consciously cerebral. However, the spacious novelistic form of Look at Me didn’t quite seem commensurate with the fears it summoned up: as Moose puts it, imagining a hyper-digital future, ‘a world remade by circuitry was a world without history or context or meaning’ and ‘such a world was certainly headed toward death.’ It is only in her new novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, with its more unorthodox narrative, that Egan fully realises her vision of the impersonal tyranny of a mass, technicised society. Describing the lives of people in and around the rock music business, it spans roughly half a century, from the 1970s to a menacingly near future. Several interlocking developments specific to this period form the political and cultural background to the book’s diversely alienated characters: the neutralisation of the counterculture, the decline of family capitalism, the rise of corporate political and economic power, and of credit-fuelled high-end consumption, which together lead to a state of mass depoliticisation where even the obsession with personal identity that had previously overlaid the reality of class conflict turns into competition between consumer status groups (iPhone v. Blackberry – that kind of thing). The book ends with a bleak vision of gadget-addicted infants and toddlers driving popular culture and business.

Almost all of the book’s 13 chapters could stand on their own as short stories: each has a distinct narrative edginess and moments of sharp social and psychological insight. In the first chapter we meet Sasha, a kleptomaniac assistant to a music producer, Bennie Salazar, as a young woman in New York. She goes out on a date with a man called Alex she has met online, finds him a bit boring, but still brings him back to her apartment for sex, and then, when he is in the bathroom, helplessly steals a scrap of paper from his wallet. This is where the chapter ends. But its personalities now ripple across other chapters. Bennie Salazar is the first to come into focus, as a jaded corporate supremo, resentfully appeasing ‘the multinational crude-oil extractors he’d sold his label to’. Subsequent chapters show him unchronologically at different stages in his life: as a wannabe record producer in the Bay Area in the 1970s; marooned in a hedge-funders’ suburb with his wife, suddenly racially self-conscious among liberal-conservative blondes; then coolly, even cold-heartedly, fending off an embittered and unbalanced musician friend from his Bay Area days; and, finally, in one of the book’s many satirical turns of fate, presiding over the same friend’s commercial apotheosis in 2020, after ‘two generations of war and surveillance’ have ‘left people craving the embodiment of their own unease in the form of a lone, unsteady man on a slide guitar’.

Sasha also reappears later in the book in two different geographical settings: as a teenager, and then as a mother of two children. If the shock of recognition on both occasions is oddly powerful – a recurring sensation in the book – it is not because we realise that something very dramatic has happened to her, or indeed to Bennie. On the contrary, the incremental unfolding of her and Bennie’s life leaves us with a disturbing sense of their (and our) state of unfreedom: it shows us the full arc of their choiceless lives (within a society ideologically committed to the adventure of individualism and self-invention). And since Egan here is fully committed to the modernist fragment, her usual narrative devices – shifts in time, different points of view – now seem perfectly matched to her material. Look at Me brimmed with reportorial knowingness about the ‘gritty industrialism’ of superseded Illinois towns, the grotesqueries of the modelling business, the hierarchies within Manhattan nightclubs, and the fine social discriminations of bouncers. The new novel carefully rations information such as social and personal background. This withholding, and the partial view of human personality it creates, generates some impressive moments of narrative tension, which then lodge the book’s apparently minor characters – a gay junkie, a celebrity profiler, a flailing PR executive – more securely in the reader’s memory. People who would only be allowed bit roles in a longer, intricately plotted novel kaleidoscopically emerge as figures in their own right.

Egan exposes her toilers in the music industry to settings that range from 1970s San Francisco through rural Africa, Westchester County and Naples to the New York City of the future. This rarely feels like deliberate globetrotting. Balzac, the originator of the encyclopedic social novel, once claimed that in Paris vice perpetually joined the rich man to the poor, and the great to the humble. Much more than vice now connects people in the world’s globalised – and recklessly expanding – virtual communities. The proliferation of casual and secondary relationships opens up new possibilities for the polyphonic novel, which the form of Goon Squad eagerly embraces. Still, Egan’s teeming constellation, and its many orbits, can occasionally be daunting. Not all of the devices she uses to multiply perspectives and narrative styles or complicate timelines are equally effective. Though appealing, even amusing, a teenage girl’s PowerPoint slides and a densely footnoted tabloid article leave one uncertain about their artistic merit, much as conceptual painting can. A struggling New York publicist’s attempt to repackage an African dictator seems an instance of an actuality too gaudy for art. The placid reader might be a bit exasperated by chapter openings which, because of the shifts in tone, always come as a small shock, demanding close attention. ‘Ask Me If I Care’, which is set among teen punk-rockers and groupies in the Bay Area during the 1970s, begins with an array of characters, both named and unnamed:

Late at night, when there’s nowhere left to go, we go to Alice’s house. Scotty drives his pickup, two of us squeezed in front with him, blasting bootleg tapes of the Stranglers, the Nuns, Negative Trend, the other two stuck in back where you freeze all year along, getting tossed in the actual air when Scotty tops the hills. Still, if it’s Bennie and me I hope for the back, so I can push against his shoulder in the cold, and hold him for a second when we hit a bump.

It took me some time to catch up, to connect the scene with other geographically remote settings, but by then I was attuned to the hesitantly lyrical voice of the teenage narrator, and eager to see her adult self elsewhere in the book. The equally unexpected second-person narrative of ‘Out of Body’ initially looked like a stunt; and then the slangy straightforwardness came to seem a cunning way to capture the protagonists in their most characteristic mode. Even at her most experimental, Egan never loses her interest in characterisation, in the peculiar shapes individual lives assume.

By forgoing omniscient, all-explaining narration, Egan seems to get at a deeper interiority. And by rapidly shifting scene and voice – in what often seems the novelistic equivalent of Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know about Her – she saves herself, and her reader, the tedious tasks of scene-setting and plot advancement. Indeed, doing away with the bulky contrivances of drama allows Egan to reveal the death by a thousand cuts that time inflicts on her characters. ‘Time is a goon,’ says Bosco, a guitarist who has gone from ‘being a rock star to being a fat fuck no one cares about’. The many instances of physical and moral decay in the novel remind us that in a culture centrally obsessed with youth and beauty, time is a particularly vicious thug. Egan is admirably clear-sighted about this (‘nostalgia,’ Bennie muses, ‘was the end – everyone knows that’) and any signs of decrepitude seem to provoke Egan’s most vivaciously caustic writing. Bosco is ‘unrecognisable as the scrawny, stovepipe-panted practitioner of a late-eighties sound somewhere between punk and ska, a hive of redheaded mania who had made Iggy Pop look indolent onstage. More than once, club owners had called 911 during Conduits shows, convinced that Bosco was having a seizure.’ Now, an ‘unsuccessful hip replacement’ has left Bosco ‘with the lurching, belly-hoisting walk of a refrigerator on a hand truck’. Rock music is central to the book but, unlike many of her peers, Egan avoids the self-indulgent sentimentality of invoking the cherished bands and icons of childhood and adolescence. She is much more interested in the ‘gritty industrialism’ of the music industry than in remembrance of tunes past. Thus the 1970s Bay Area musicians and groupies emerge as victims of a heartless utilitarianism that grinds down even the most ‘alternative’ forms of counterculture: they are pieces of socio-economic history, not merely personal mementos.

It helps, of course, that rock, as Ellen Willis once wrote, ‘is America – the black experience, the white experience, technology, commercialism, rebellion, populism, the Hells Angels, the horror of old age – as seen by its urban adolescents’. Now, after fifty years of ruthless commodification, rock seems to be dead – or is at least terminally sick. The novel’s dystopian closing chapter set in 2020 shows Alex, Sasha’s date in the first chapter, trying to manufacture ‘authentic’ word-of-mouth for a concert (with methods reminiscent of the ‘search-engine optimisation’ tricks that allowed the evidently left-wing Huffington Post to achieve enough ‘hits’ to make it worth $315 million to a huge media conglomerate). Toddlers – who download music onto ‘kiddie handsets’ – have revived a dead industry, persuading bands to ‘reinvent themselves for the preverbal’. But A Visit from the Goon Squad doesn’t only read like the obituary of the long since corporatised and now digitally challenged music industry: something larger is reflected in it. Early on, Bennie is driving down Manhattan with Sasha and mentally surveying his personal history of rock, as music plays on the car stereo, from the early Who through ‘alternative, that great compromise’, down to more recent debasements and

down, down, down to the singles he’d just today been petitioning radio stations to add, husks of music, lifeless and cold as the squares of office neon cutting the blue twilight.

‘It’s incredible,’ Sasha said, ‘how there’s just nothing there.’

  Astounded, Bennie turned to her. Was it possible that she’d followed his rant to its grim conclusion? Sasha was looking downtown, and he followed her eyes to the empty space where the Twin Towers had been. ‘There should be something, you know?’ she said, not looking at Bennie. ‘Like an echo. Or an outline.’

Here, in this brisk reckoning with the event that has been the undoing of many distinguished writers, Egan commemorates not only the fading of a cultural glory but also of the economic and political supremacy that underpinned it. The sense of an ending has always appeared to spur Egan’s inventiveness. An almost mystical conviction of individual and collective failure pervades A Visit from the Goon Squad; the fragmentary nature of its narrative seems to enact the rhythms of dissolution, the slow-burning confusion of a people who long ago ‘stopped being themselves without realising it’. And yet there is energy, even exuberance, in its despair. ‘Sure, everything is ending,’ one of the characters says, ‘but not yet.’ Could this be a suitable aesthetic for the onrushing post-imperial age, a credo of the vigorous senescence of American modernity? Certainly, A Visit from the Goon Squad hints that novels whose highest aim is to confirm the proud assumptions of a liberal-minded bourgeoisie – self-awareness, social inquiry and progress – may be in danger of producing a false picture of the oldest country in the world.