"We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience." -John Dewey
Good news for the jaded out there- the sighing mourners for correct comma usage, modern music naysayers, and peak oil enthusiasts: pessimism is still in style. Jennifer Egan’s 2010 Pulitzer prize-winning novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, raises your doleful cries to the level of Art.
The paragraph of description on the back of my paperback copy of Goon Squad says that Egan’s story is about “self-destruction and redemption”. Despite the obviousness of this book jacket PR-speak- language (that even a few of her characters deride in the book), it took several minutes of post-reading reflection to identify the truth in this description.
That’s because the redemption in the lives of Egan’s characters is so fleeting, so manifestly impermanent, it is utterly and fatally overwhelmed by tragedy. Egan’s redemption is a sun framed perfectly in a window, it’s a concert in a park, it’s childhood innocence.
The real substance in the lives of her characters is failure writ large and small. It’s the failure of desire when faced with the realities of marriage, or of a father’s love to overcome the emotional wall of autism. It’s the failure of first dates and forgotten names.
Egan’s tragedies are wrapped in a cloak of inevitability, embodied simply and perfectly in momentary digressions from an event at hand to the future life events toward which everything circuitously leads: “Lou and Mindy dance close together, their whole bodies touching, but Mindy is thinking of Albert, as she will periodically after marrying Lou and having two daughters, his fifth and sixth children, in quick succession, as if sprinting against the inevitable drift of his attention…”
These digressions into the future provide the reader with some instant gratification- characters’ lives seem to wrap up in more or less tidy packages punctured by regret. Tying up loose ends satiates my innate desire for a complete story arc…or at least my desire to find out who will marry who and when they will divorce and what will be his or her ultimate career move. But these portals to the future also deprive Egan’s characters of mystery and hope. Their futures, unveiled as a catalog of recognizable events and emotions, make them seem flat and tragically uninspired. But then again, this might be the point.
I look forward to a time when such pessimism is considered passè. To me, it speaks too forcefully from a bodily-centered perspective- a declaration that all of our lives are spiraling into ultimate decrepitude and disillusionment. Instead of living constantly and dynamically in a state of metamorphosis and adaptation, this perspective tells us that we are wearing out and slowly surrendering with the dying of the light. Rage! Rage, I say.