(Through Chapter 5 of “A Visit from the Goon Squad”)
Debby: One of the things I like most about this book is it’s raw honesty. Everybody, in some sense, is messed up– and admits it to at least a degree. But I think the interaction between Lou and Rhea on pages 56-57 truly sums up the mentality of this book as a whole. First, Rhea asks Lou: “Do you even remember being our age?” to which he responds “I am your age” (56).Lou blatantly disregards fact in order to stand by what he feels. Then, just moments later, Lou tells Rhea, “The world is full of sh*theads, Rhea. Don’t listen to them– listen to me.” Rhea reacts by acknowledging: “And I know that Lou is one of those sh*theads. But I listen” (57). Again, there is this emphasis on living by what you feel, even if all facts and truth and wisdom point the opposite direction. Each character acknowledges this as a fault, and yet lives by it without complaint.
Tim: Yeah, the chapter I’m in the middle of right now absolutely does the same thing. It’s from the perspective of Stephanie, who’s Bennie’s wife at the time of the chapter. They talk about how they don’t fit in, and at one point Bennie acknowledges that he hates everyone, but won’t leave. The implication is that it feels like defeat, feels like he’d be admitting to the stereotypes they’ve laid upon him. He’d be happier if they moved, but he’d rather be sorta miserable just to feel like he’s “winning.” I think it’s a great character trait, and part of why all the characters so far feel very authentic. In a lot of stories you get that one person who’s cold and calculating to the exclusion of all emotion, and I love that there aren’t any characters like that here.
Debby: I want to change the nuance of one of your statements: I don’t think Bennie needs to feel like he’s winning. I work at a country club that boasts a membership of some of the most “prominent” society people in Southern California. It is called a “club” for a reason: there is a strong current of exclusivity running through its core. Bennie is trying to earn the respect of these socialites that he’s surrounded himself by. That is the only way that he can feel that his work– the money he has made and the records that he’s produced– are actually of value.
Tim: Absolutely. He needs a yardstick by which to measure his worth so he can get an emotional response rather than just an intellectual understanding of the numbers that make up his life. And you see it with Rhea, and Sasha, and Lou, and all the rest, too. The emotional core of characters is always important, but this book is sort of putting them on display.
Debby: I certainly think that one of the most interesting aspects of this novel is the interaction between emotion and action: one doesn’t necessarily drive the other. More often than not, the characters act out what they deem is “expected” of them, rather than how the really feel (but we get to be privy to these feelings). And it is so inherent in our generation, especially in the world of pop culture, which all of these individuals seem to be connected to in one way or another.
Tim: So let’s bring that back full circle. How does the fact that there are behaviors expected of them link back to their acknowledgements of their own shortcomings?
Debby: Well the answer is kind of in the question, isn’t it? They can’t fulfill expectations, especially when they are expectations set by themselves. The way to earn respect isn’t by joining a country club or wearing the right clothing. People like Bennie and Stephanie know this innately, yet are still so determined to “look” the part and satisfy the checklist of the rich and powerful. Yet they don’t feel like they are part of this group of people and that insecurity is inevitably what keeps them set apart from the club. If they were willing to take a step back, move to where their real friends were, spend money on things they like to do, they would be happier and more satisfied with life. But our culture is all about appearances rather than feelings– they picked their master.