This story is set in the near future. Alex meets with Bennie to talk about a job promoting a concert. Their children play on the floor between them, and their wives, Rebecca and Lupa, are in the kitchen. Alex had heard about Bennie from Sasha a long time ago, though he doesn’t remember Sasha’s name. He remembers something about a wallet, but can’t remember the details.
This story leaps forward in time, showing two characters presented in earlier stories. Both Bennie and Alex have changed in the years that have passed, but some things haven’t changed completely, such as Bennie’s involvement in the music industry. The fact that Alex doesn’t remember Sasha speaks to time’s corrosive nature on memory, and the way in which moments that feel meaningful at the time often lose their meaning.
Alex feels some tension around taking the job, which revolves around social media marketing. The job he wanted was running a mixing board. Bennie’s daughter, Ava, takes a plastic pot away from Alex’s daughter, Cara-Ann. Alex gets up to go intervene, but notices Bennie doesn’t move. He sits back down. Rebecca calls in, asking if everything is okay. Alex tells her everything is good.
This story too takes place in the near-future, and shows the impact of technology on the lives of Americans. Alex, like Bennie, is a purist when it comes to music, and he wants to interact with it directly by running the mixing board. The difference in Bennie and Alex’s response to the daughters shows a distinction between their characters. Bennie is older and has another son (Christopher), but Alex is a new father.
Bennie understands that Alex wants to work with sound, but the problem with the industry is it is no longer concerned with sound. The music industry is all about “reach,” which is a bitter pill Bennie has swallowed. Bennie was fired from his own label, Sow’s Ear, after bringing cow dung to his board of directors, and stating that they are asking him to produce shit music. After that, Bennie had begun producing music with analog sound, but it never sold. He is seen as irrelevant in the industry now.
In the near-future America featured in this story, the music industry is not concerned with the artistic credibility of the music, but on what music will sell—and through this Egan comments on the present nature of the music industry as well. The language around the industry has also shifted, showing how meaning associated with language has changed over time. Bennie, a true lover of art, sacrificed his career to fight against the degradation of the industry.
When Alex’s daughter bites Bennie’s daughter’s shoulder, the women rush into the room. Alex reveals that he met Bennie through Bennie’s much younger wife, Lupa. Lupa suggests Bennie play Scotty’s record for Alex. He plays the record, and tells Alex Scotty’s album is selling well with “the pointers,” a term used to describe toddlers who are now able to download music just by pointing at their kiddie handsets, which resemble smartphones. In the near future in which this story is set, bands have had no choice but to market to preverbal children. Alex’s daughter has never touched one of the handsets, and Alex and Rebecca have agreed not to let her until she is five.
The information about Bennie’s wife shows the ups and down Bennie has experienced in his life. Earlier, the novel depicts the ruin of his relationship with Stephanie, but looking forward now, he is remarried with a new family. His reconnection with Scotty also points to the idea of connection and redemption. The change in the music industry and in technology is shown in the marketing strategies to “the pointers.” The industry is not interested in art, but in what will sell.
Bennie closes his eyes as he listens to Scotty’s album. He believes his sound is pure. Alex closes his own eyes and takes in the sound, which sounds like choppers, church bells, and a distant drill. He hears Cara-Ann cry as Rebecca pulls her sweater on to get her ready to go. Alex feels dread at the thought of leaving the meeting empty handed. He opens his eyes and finds Bennie staring at him. Bennie asks him if he hears what Bennie hears.
At this point in his life, Bennie is able to act authentically and promote music he believes in. Alex, however, is distracted by his role as a father, and cares more about providing for his family than the quality of the music.
That night, Alex gets out of bed and goes into the living room. Outside the window, the Empire State Building stands tall. It had been a selling point when Rebecca’s parents bought the apartment. They’d planned to sell it, but developers are now erecting a building that will block the view, lowering the value of the apartment. Alex lights a joint. He thinks about that afternoon, when he’d tried—and failed—to tell Rebecca what he’d agreed to do for Bennie. His job is to find people, who are pejoratively called “parrots,” to spread the word about an upcoming concert to be played by Scotty.
The changes of the city reflect the way in which time impacts the lives of the city’s resident. In the novel’s first story, Alex was new to New York, and optimistic, and the disappointment of the new building reflects the changes he has experienced in his outlook. Alex struggles with authenticity on two levels: he agrees to take the job that does not reflect his values, and he is unable to be honest with Rebecca about it. Likewise, his job is to exploit people, depicting a larger lack of authenticity and honesty in the music industry.
Taking out his handset, Alex begins choosing people he might try to recruit for the job by three criteria: how much they need money, how connected and respected they are, and how they might use that respectability to recruit others to attend the concert. He finds that people who score high in two criteria, score low in the third. He realizes that Bennie had recruited him, though he is not sure exactly why it worked, since Alex considers himself a purist, like Bennie. He decides it doesn’t matter, and chooses to find fifty people like him.
Alex’s thought process shows the way in which technological innovation in marketing has disconnected people from their humanity and the humanity of others. Instead of thinking who might be right for the job, Alex considers others not as people, but by impersonal criteria. His realization that he was recruited in the way he wants to recruit others then suggests to his disconnection from himself.
Alex meets with Lulu, who is Bennie’s assistant. They are working together on the social media marketing campaign for Scotty’s concert. Lulu is perusing a marketing degree, and Alex is surprised that she has to take physics instead of epidemiology. She explains that the “viral model” of marketing has gone out of style. Information now travels faster than the speed of light, so they study particle physics in marketing school. Lulu is what is called a “handset employee,” who has no office and uses no paper, but is omnipresent through the use of her handset.
Lulu appears earlier in the novel as Dolly’s daughter in “Selling the General,” and seeing her now, as a confident and intelligent young woman back in New York, depicts the impact her earlier experiences have had on her career choice. The shift in the marketing models shows the advancement in technology and the ways that individuals connect and work in the Egan’s imagined future.
Alex learns that Lulu has known Bennie since she was a child because her mother, Dolly, was a friend with Bennie’s ex-wife, Stephanie. Their food arrives, and Bennie is careful not to wake Cara-Ann, who sleeps by his side. Lulu uses terms typically associated with sports to talk about their plan, and when Alex asks her about them, she says they are now marketing terms. They talk about the ways in which they will use manipulation to get their marketing team together. They talk about the ethics of the work, and whether it is okay to bribe people with money into promoting the show. Lulu challenges Alex’s perception of what is ethical, and Alex feels like pushing back against Lulu’s confidence, which seems to him the outcome of a happy childhood. He believes it is rooted in her youth.
Lulu’s language around marketing is unfamiliar to Alex, showing both how meaning changes over time older individuals are left behind as time and society moves forward. Likewise, the ethics of marketing has changed, and in this new technological world manipulation and a lack of authenticity are the norm. Lulu’s confidence echoes her confidence in “Selling the General,” though Alex misinterprets her upbringing, as Lulu had a difficult upbringing with a mother who spent time in prison. This speaks to the way outward markers like confidence do not necessarily reflect a person’s identity or history.
Cara-Ann wakes up, and asks who Lulu is. Lulu asks if she can just “T” Alex, meaning can she send him a text message. She texts his phone, and he reads the strange texting idiom Lulu uses. She likes texting because it is straightforward—no philosophies, no metaphors, and no judgment. Cara-Ann points at the handset, and Alex tells her not to look. Before he can put the phone away, though, Lulu sends Cara-Ann a text picture of a lion, with a note that says she has a nice dad. Cara-Ann reaches out and begins touching the phone. Lulu texts Alex, saying that she never met her own dad. After receiving the text, Alex says he is sorry, but feels suddenly if he is talking too loud. He texts “sad”, but Lulu texts, “Ancnt hstry”, back to him.
The advancement of technology and the way people connect in the future is again depicted in this scene. Lulu likes sending text messages because she feels the meaning is straightforward and not weighed down by the complexity of oral communication. Alex’s prejudice against technology is shown through his refusal to let Cara-Ann look at the phone, though the text exchange has a sudden impact on him, which is reflected in his self-consciousness about the volume of his voice. By engaging in the text exchange about her father, Alex gives in to the appeal of technology, and is able to connect with Lulu in an authentic way.
Three weeks later, as Alex and Rebecca walk to the river, Cara-Ann points to Alex’s pocket, asking for his phone. She’s started calling it “lollipop.” Rebecca asks Alex if he has a lollipop, and Alex says of course he doesn’t. Alex has just met Rebecca outside of the library where she was studying, planning to finally tell her about his job with Bennie. They are hurrying to get to the river before sunset, which has been pushed back due to global warming. By the time they reach the river, the sun is hovering above the water wall, which has been constructed to combat rising water levels.
Cara-Ann’s word for the phone, “lollipop,” points to the instability and subjectivity of meaning—Alex knows what she is talking about, but Rebecca doesn’t. Alex continues to struggle to be honest with Rebecca about the job. The presence of the sun and the rising water levels speak to the ruinous impact of human consumption on the earth.
Rebecca sets Cara-Ann down, and Alex takes Rebecca’s hand. He notes that lately he has not found her as attractive as he did in the past. She has begun looking like a fragile, harried academic. She is teaching and working on a book about the phenomenon of “word casings,” a term she created for words that no longer have meaning outside of quotation marks, such as, “friend” and “real.” Other words, like “identity” and “Cloud,” have changed meaning because of their use on the web. Alex feels depressed when he thinks about his role in the relationship. He is an aging music freak who is struggling to make his way, and feels he is sapping the life from his wife.
Though holding hands seems like a gesture of connection, Alex’s thoughts suggest a disconnection between Alex and Rebecca. Rebecca’s research points to a major theme running through this story—the shift of meaning in language through time. Advancements in technology (and, arguably, the disconnection from meaning that accompanies them) have had a major impact on the meaning and sincerity of certain words. Alex’s self-consciousness about the relationship illuminates why he has taken the job with Bennie. Though it conflicts with his identity and values, he feels as if he is a ruinous force in Rebecca’s life and wants to find redemption through making something of himself in the job.
As the sun sets, a hush encloses the crowd at the wall. Cara-Ann runs off, and Rebecca peruses in attempt to catch her. Alex, left alone for a moment, checks his phone, finding some texts from Lulu reporting people who have agreed to join their marketing campaign. When Cara-Ann returns, she cries “Lollipop!” Alex slips the phone in his pocket, and Cara-Ann tugs at his jeans. Rebecca realizes that the phone is what Cara-Ann is referring to when she says lollipop. She asks if Alex let her use it, and he says he did once. They argue, and Rebecca says she doesn’t understand why he changed the rules. Alex becomes paranoid, wondering what else she knows. He decides it is time to tell Rebecca about the job, but he feels paralyzed. He feels the desire to text her, instead of telling her outright.
Despite the technological world in which these characters live, there is still a reverence for the beauty of nature, and a respect for the power of passing time. The argument about the phone speaks to an ongoing tension and disconnection between Alex and Rebecca around the issue of technology, arguably reflecting Egan’s own conflicted views on the subject. Because he has been able to connect with Lulu through texting, Alex feels he might connect with Rebecca the same way—technology has brought about a certain level of connection, but also a greater sense of distance.
As they begin walking again, Alex remembers the night he met Rebecca. He had chased down a man in a wolf mask who stole her purse, and though he failed to get it back, he coaxed her into getting burritos and beers. Later, they had sex on the rooftop of her building. As he reminisces, he remembers Sasha’s name, and recalls the events of the night he spent with her, though he can’t remember if they had sex. Just then, Alex gets a text from Lulu, asking if he has heard that Bennie moved Scotty’s concert outdoors. This means that Alex will have to do more outreach so people will know where to go. He will receive no additional pay. They text back and forth about Scotty’s demands, and Alex realize that the text conversations move along smoothly. When they arrive home, Alex texts Lulu about the building going up beside his. She asks if he can stop it. He says has tried, but failed. He asks if he can move, and she texts back, “nyc”. He thinks she means ‘nice’, but she really means, ‘New York City’.
The memory of the night he met Rebecca echoes the novel’s first story, “Found Objects,” and speaks to a time in Alex’s life when he was more authentic and true to his values (though also naïve and idealistic). He remembers Sasha’s name because of the relationship between the two events, but does not recall the moment of intimate connection they shared, again showing to the fallibility of memory. When Alex is texting Lulu, he seems to realize that texting is a valid and effective way of connecting with others, though the miscommunication pointed out by the narrator suggests another misunderstanding, and this way of connecting is not without its faults.
The day of the concert is unseasonably warm. The trees, which bloomed in January, are full of leaves. Alex had debated how to tell Rebecca about the concert, but she had brought it up, saying it might be a chance for Alex to reconnect with Bennie. He writhes at the fact that he still hasn’t told her about the job.
The presence of blooming New York City trees in January shows the extent of ruin caused by climate change in the story. The fact that Alex has still not told Rebecca about his job also speaks to the severity of their disconnection and inability to be authentic with one another.
On the way to the concert, they run into Alex’s friend Zeus and his girlfriend. Zeus and his girlfriend say that they have heard Scotty is really good, and Alex wonders if they have been recruited for the marketing project. Rebecca says that, strangely, she has heard the same thing from eight different people. Zeus’s girlfriend says it’s not strange, that people are getting paid to talk about it, but Rebecca notes that they were people she knew. After the exchange, Alex notes that he feels invisible.
The fact that Alex doesn’t know who is working for him and who isn’t emphasizes the lack of human connection in his work. Likewise, Rebecca’s response that she knew the people who told her about the show speaks to a similar kind of disconnection.
On the way to the outdoor venue, Alex and Rebecca have nine or ten similar exchanges with different people. Alex struggles to believe that his work has been so successful. He feels like a genius, but begins to worry that Scotty might not be as good as everyone is saying. Rebecca, noticing that Alex seems nervous, asks if he is okay. He says he is fine. Rebecca notes that he is squeezing her hand, but she enjoys it.
Despite his feeling of invisibility, Alex feels proud of his work, though he questions the authenticity of the message he has been spreading. Rebecca sees Alex’s tight grip her hand as a source of connection, while Alex is anything but connected to her in this moment.
When they reach the venue, there are helicopters overhead. Alex has gotten used to these forms of security, but today it seems strange to him. Around him, he notices a sea of babies and children. He notes that if there are children there must be a future. The new buildings shine on the horizon, more like sculptures than buildings, because they are empty. In front of the venue, there is a heavy police presence, and there are security cameras attached to lampposts and trees. Rebecca tells Alex that she loves him, and Alex tells her not to say it like something bad is about to happen. Rebecca says she is nervous, but Alex tells her it is just the helicopters.
Security has become heightened in post-9/11 NYC, hinting at a constant threat of destruction and a more complete surveillance state. Alex’s recent leap into new uses of technology has caused him to begin contemplating its ruinous consequences, but he tries to find hope in future generations. His engagement in the music industry also raises questions about the meaning of art. By comparing the empty buildings to sculptures, Alex speaks to the emptiness of most art in his society.
Alex leaves Rebecca and Cara-Ann in the crowd after receiving a text message from Lulu that Bennie needs help. Alex goes to Scotty’s trailer, and finds Bennie and an old roadie inside. There is no sign of Scotty. Again, Alex feels invisible. Bennie tells the roadie that he can do it, but the man seems frantically unsure of himself. Bennie tells Alex to stand by the door. As Alex watches Bennie talk to the man, he suddenly realizes that the man is Scotty Hausman. Scotty says he is too old to play, that he can’t go out there. Alex understands that Scotty Hausman does not exist. Scotty is a “word casing” in human form, a shell whose essence has vanished. Bennie continues to encourage Scotty, telling him that “time is a goon,” and he shouldn’t let that goon push him around. Scotty feels the goon has won.
Alex’s misinterpretation of Scotty (believing he is a roadie) again shows the disconnection between image and identity, as does Alex’s impression of Scotty as an individual whose “essence” is gone—for this impression is counteracted later in the story. Bennie and Scotty both acknowledge the ruinous force of time, again bringing up the titular “goon.” Scotty understands that popular culture worships youth and thus believes he is beyond redemption. Bennie, however, has known both ruin and redemption in his life, and believes Scotty should resist while he can.
Bennie takes a long breath and reminds Scotty about the time he came to his office twenty-some-odd years ago and brought him a fish. After Bennie lost his job and Stephanie divorced him, he searched out Scotty. He asks Scotty what he told him, and Scotty says Bennie told him it was time to become a star. Scotty had dared him to do it. There is a long pause, and then Scotty jumps to his feet and lunges for the door, trying to escape. Scotty grapples with Alex, eventually swinging at Alex. He hits the door, and then knees Alex in the groin. He throws the door open and begins to leave, but is stopped by Lulu.
Through the loss of his family and ruin of his career, Bennie has become a more authentic individual, which allowed him to reconnect with Scotty in a deeper way then he was able twenty years prior. He believes Scotty is worthy of redemption, and has worked hard to reach this point with him. The pause embodies everything they have been through to arrive at this place. Scotty, however, is unable to overcome his fear and attempts to escape.
Lulu stands before Scotty, the sun reflecting in her hair. Scotty hesitates, and Alex realizes that Scotty has lost the fight. Lulu offers to walk him to the stage, and he asks to take her arm. In that moment, Alex sees a sexy and rakish version of Scotty shine through. After they walk toward the stage, Bennie says Lulu will run the world some day. On stage, Scotty begins to play children songs, and the sound of his music drowns out the helicopters. Alex expects the crowd to reject Scotty, but the children cheer, and their parents become intrigued by the song’s double meanings.
Lulu’s youth is highlighted in this moment and becomes a source of power for her. Through his connection with Lulu, Scotty is able face his fear, and Alex sees Lulu’s youthful power bring out a different side of Scotty’s identity. In the presence of Scotty’s art, the sound of the helicopters fades, which speaks to the timeless redemptive power of art. Scotty’s music has the power to connect with both parents and children because it provides meaning for both groups.
As Alex watches, he is stunned by the response. He wonders if a crowd at a particular moment in history creates the meaning of the event, like Monterey Pop or Woodstock. Maybe, he thinks, the response is just because two generations of war and surveillance have caused people to peg Scotty as the embodiment of their own unease. The crowed is bowled over when Scotty stands up, releasing something strong, charismatic, and fierce. Later, people will say this is when the concert really started. He begins playing songs nobody has ever heard, ballads of paranoia and disconnection that come from the heart a man who had never had an online profile, a handle, or a handset. The music is pure. Later, the show will go down in history, and later everyone will claim they were there, even if they weren’t. Scotty will become a mythic figure.
The intense sense of connection among the crowd while Scotty plays leads Alex to contemplate the nature of these kinds of shared experiences and question how meaning is created. Again, Scotty’s outward appearance is misleading, which leads to surprise when he stands and begins playing his music, revealing his true identity. Scotty’s age and lack of presence on social media also speaks to the power of pure art over pop culture fads. The fact that the show goes down in history and people will lie about being present proves this idea is true, while also subtly reflecting Dolly’s past party disaster earlier in the book. In light of everything that Scotty has been through in the novel, this moment is immensely redemptive.
As Alex watches with Bennie, he wishes he were with Rebecca and Cara-Ann. He locates Rebecca with his handset, but he can’t see her. Eventually, he uses a zoom feature on his phone to find her. They are too far away for him to reach her, but he texts her, calling her his beautiful wife, and asking her to wait for him. He watches until the vibration of the phone registers in her pocket.
Alex here uses his cellphone to find Rebecca, showing the potential connective power of technology. Throughout the story he has hidden his texting from Rebecca, but in this moment he acts authentically, and communicates with her without fear.
After the concert, Bennie is elated, and says that this kind of event only happens once in a person’s life. Alex notes that after the concert, Rebecca kept asking him to see about a job with Bennie. Well after midnight now, Bennie and Alex walk together to the Lower East Side. Alex feels depressed, but hides it from Bennie. Alex asks Bennie if he ever had an employee named Sasha. Bennie says he did, and that Sasha used to live close by. Alex asks what she was like, and Bennie says she was great, but she stole from him so he had to fire her. Alex feels a connection form in his mind, but he can’t see it clearly.
The concert was not only redemptive for Scotty, but also for Bennie. In light of all of the ruin in his life and career, he has finally accomplished something that will go down in history. Alex, however, does not share in Bennie’s elation because he still has not been able to be honest with Rebecca about his job. Alex almost grasps a more complete memory of Sasha, but it remains just out of reach for now.
They turn a corner, and Bennie says that Sasha’s apartment was right there. Alex feels a flash of recognition and a shiver of déjà vu, as if he is returning to a place that no longer exists. Bennie remembers Sasha lived in apartment F4, and they ring the buzzer. Alex gains more clarity around his memory of the night he went to Sasha’s apartment, remembering the bathtub in the kitchen. Alex imagines himself walking into the apartment and finding his younger self there, still full of schemes and high standards. Nobody answers, and Bennie says he hopes that Sasha has a good life, because she deserves it.
The sight of the building triggers Alex’s memory, and for a moment he is transported back to a time in his life when he was younger, when he was more ambitious and stood by his values. Through this memory, he confronts the person he has become. Bennie has also lost connection with Sasha, but his comment suggests a change in his character. In earlier stories he objectifies Sasha and uses her as a gage for his sexual potency, but his hope that she has a good life suggests he recognizes her humanity. Sasha is arguably the protagonist of the novel, and the fact that the book ends with two characters thinking about their connections to her while she is absent is ironically fitting, considering Egan’s main themes.
Bennie and Alex begin walking again and Alex says he doesn’t know what has happened to him. Bennie says Alex grew up, just like everyone else. Alex thinks in the text idiom Lulu uses: th blu nyt, th stRs u cant c, th hum tht nevr gOs awy, which translates to: the blue night, the stars you can’t see, the hum that never goes away. Just then, they see a woman approaching. For a moment they hope it is Sasha, but it is another girl, young and new to the city, fiddling with her keys.
Alex confronts that he has changed, but can’t understand what happened. Bennie, who is older and more experienced, understands time and age have changed him. Alex’s poetic thoughts offer an inverse of the novel’s symbols of the sun and pauses. The night is absent of sunlight and the stars are not visible, which reflect Alex’s lack of attention to time, but the hum reflects the idea that time is always passing, whether one pays attention to it or not. Their hope that the girl is Sasha speaks to their desire to reconnect with the past, but the fact that it is a young woman who is new to the city suggests the past is unattainable—that time is always moving forward, and past moments of connection or authenticity must remain forever behind them.