Academic journal article Pennsylvania Literary Journal

Nachträglichkeit and "Narrative Time" in Jennifer Egan's a Visit from the Goon Squad

Academic journal article Pennsylvania Literary Journal

Nachträglichkeit and "Narrative Time" in Jennifer Egan's a Visit from the Goon Squad

Article excerpt

"Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards"

-Søren Kierkegaard

A meditation on time, memory, and aging, Jennifer Egan's experimental (and Pulitzer-prize-winning) novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010) comprises a series of interrelated vignettes, most of which feature either Bennie Salazar, a music industry executive who is past his prime, or his former assistant, Sasha Blake (née Grady)1. Rather than following a linear path, Egan assembles the series of vignettes in such a way that they shift backwards and forwards in time with events from the novel taking place from the late 1960s through 2020s2. Much of the novel is set in New York City, but some action occurs in locales such as California, Naples, Italy, and Kenya, so the narrative, in fact, moves scatteredly across both time and place3. The novel's trajectory- random though it may initially seem to readers-is not haphazard. Instead, the narrative structure works as part of Egan's overall project, which is to highlight the relationship between memory and time's passing4.

Consisting of thirteen chapters, A Visit from the Goon Squad has an unconventional narrative structure. Although innovative (and interesting) the unconventional and complicated narrative structure of the novel also presents a problem for readers to solve. Indeed, to understand the narrative, readers must reassemble the diverse events which make up the novel. Presented with such a complex narrative structure, how exactly are readers supposed to go about piecing together the various stories, sketches, and vignettes into a cohesive account of events? Following this line of inquiry, this essay offers a reading of Egan's novel that relies upon Freud's concept of Nachträglichkeit, arguing that only through understanding this psychoanalytic concept of "afterwardsness" that readers are able to reconstruct the events of the novel into a coherent narrative. Moreover, this essay contends that using the critical lens of psychoanalysis helps readers to understand the novel's characters and their motivation.

This is particularly the case with Sasha who is, without a doubt, one of the book's two main characters (the other being Bennie Sala- zar). Sasha's importance is highlighted by the fact that she bookends the novel: the book begins with a story about Sasha and it ends with two other characters (Bennie and Alex) reminded of her. The fact that the novel begins with Sasha recounting an event to her psychiatrist (in her psychiatrist's office) pushes readers to examine the novel through the critical lens of psychoanalysis. Similarly, the closing image of the novel, which is of Bennie and Alex reminiscing about Sasha and offering a backward looking glance toward her-can be read as a nod to Freud's concept of "afterwardsness" (Nachträglichkeit), a concept which this essay argues is key to understanding the novel. This backwards glance toward Sasha functions symbolically, as well, for it ties into the novel's repeated allusions to the mythological account of Orpheus and Eurydice5.

Much attention has already been paid to A Visit from the Goon Squad; however, the majority of critics and reviewers have focused solely on the themes of music and/or time as they relate to the novel. These readings make sense on a number of levels. For one, the repeated allusions to the myth of Orpheus (a famous musician) and Eurydice serves to highlight that music remains a key theme throughout the novel. In addition to this symbolic link to music, music also plays a large role in many of the novel's characters' lives, since so many of them are involved with the music industry in some fashion, whether as musicians, executives, or assistants. Further, the novel has been characterized as being about the fading of rock and roll-and the end of the rock and roll era-and, therefore, many see Egan as paying homage to the end of that lifestyle.

There is also, as critics have noted, a punk rock aesthetic to the book. …

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