The issue of identity is a prominent theme in A Visit from the Goon Squad, as Egan explores the extent to which identity is inherent and the ways in which it is assumed. The novel’s characters struggle to find meaning and authenticity in their lives, and they use different methods to discover, create, and escape their identities. The novel’s two primary characters, Sasha and Bennie, are two examples of characters that face challenges with identity. Sasha, who feels empty of a true identity, steals items that reflect the identities of the items’ owners in an attempt to establish her own identity. Benny, who is ashamed of his racial and class identities, experiences shame after moving to a wealthy white community called Crandale.
Through Sasha, Benny, and other characters, Egan works to highlight the instability of identity, and the ways in which created or assumed identities lead to a feeling of inauthenticity. Identity, assumed through certain cultural markers, is fluid. For example, in the story “Selling the General” the reader learns about The Party, which refers to a notorious and exclusive event thrown by Dolly. Dolly attempts to create an artistic display of lights by placing colored oil in plastic pans beneath the bulbs. Tragically, the pans melt, and oil ends up burning the party’s guests. The incident ruins Dolly’s career, changing her identity from a beloved scenester to a social outcast. Later, however, the party becomes an infamous event, and it is revealed that individuals who were not in attendance purposely mutilate their bodies in an attempt to claim they were there. These individuals, through self-mutilation, attempt to claim an identity of importance by lying about their involvement at the party. This ironic situation depicts clearly the changing meaning of identity markers.
The novel ultimately shows the challenges and dangers of attempting to create identities that are not authentic. Sasha and Benny both create significant wreckage in their lives in their attempts to create, maintain, or reject certain identities. The more they deny their true identities, the deeper their feeling of inauthenticity grows. In the end, both of these characters arrive in a place of authenticity, but this is only reached once they quit trying to forge their identities, and accept themselves, good and bad, for who they are.
Identity, Authenticity, and Meaning ThemeTracker
Identity, Authenticity, and Meaning Quotes in A Visit from the Goon Squad
[Coz] was trying to get Sasha to use that word, which was harder to avoid in the case of a wallet than with a lot of the things she'd lifted over the past year, when her condition (as Coz referred to it) had begun to accelerate: five sets of keys, fourteen pairs of sunglasses, a child's striped scarf…Sasha no longer took anything from stores—their cold, inert goods didn't tempt her. Only from people.
She could tell that [Alex] was in excellent shape, not from going to the gym but from being young enough that his body was still imprinted with whatever sports he'd played in high school and college. Sasha, who was thirty-five, had passed that point. Still, not even Coz knew her real age. The closest anyone had come to guessing it was thirty-one, and most put her in her twenties. She worked out daily and avoided the sun. Her online profiles all listed her as twenty-eight.
"I'm sorry," Sasha said quickly. "It’s a problem I have."
The woman opened the wallet. Her physical relief at having it back coursed through Sasha in a warm rush, as if their bodies had fused.
“Everything's there, I swear," she said. "I didn't even open it. It's this problem I have, but I'm getting help. I just—please don't tell. I'm hanging on by a thread."
The woman glanced up, her soft brown eyes moving over Sasha's face. What did she see? Sasha wished that she could turn and peer in the mirror again, as if something about herself might at last be revealed—some lost thing. But she didn't turn. She held still and let the woman look. It struck her that the woman was close to her own age—her real age. She probably had children at home.
Bennie's assistant, Sasha, brought him coffee: cream and two sugars. He shimmied a tiny red enameled box from his pocket, popped the tricky latch, pinched a few gold flakes between his trembling fingers, and released them into his cup. He'd begun this regimen two months ago, after reading in a book on Aztec medicine that gold and coffee together were believed to ensure sexual potency. Bennie's goal was more basic than potency: sex drive, his own having mysteriously expired.
Then the sisters began to sing. Oh, the raw, almost threadbare sound of their voices mixed with the clash of instruments—these sensations met with a faculty deeper in Bennie than judgment or even pleasure; they communed directly with his body…And here was his first erection in months…He seized the cowbell and stick and began whacking at it with zealous blows. He felt the music in his mouth, his ears, his ribs—or was that his own pulse? He was on fire!
"Women are cunts," his father says. "That's why.”
"They are not—" He can't make himself repeat the word.
"They are," Lou says tightly. "Pretty soon you'll know it for sure."
Rolph turns away from his father. There is nowhere to go, so he jumps into the sea and begins slowly paddling back toward shore. The sun is low, the water choppy and full of shadows. Rolph imagines sharks just under his feet, but he doesn't turn or look back.
[Charlie] takes hold of his hands. As they move together, Rolph feels his self-consciousness miraculously fade, as if he is growing up right there on the dance floor, becoming a boy who dances with girls like his sister. Charlie feels it, too. In fact, this particular memory is one she'll return to again and again, for the rest of her life, long after Rolph has shot himself in the head in their father's house at twenty-eight: her brother as a boy, hair slicked flat, eyes sparkling, shyly learning to dance.
I looked down at the city. Its extravagance felt wasteful, like gushing oil or some other precious thing Bennie was hoarding for himself, using it up so no one else could get any. I thought: If I had a view like this to look down on every day, I would have the energy and inspiration to conquer the world. The trouble is, when you most need such a view, no one gives it to you.
Stephanie and Bennie had lived in Crandale a year before they were invited to a party. It wasn't a place that warmed easily to strangers…It wore on Stephanie more than she'd expected, dropping off Chris for kindergarten, waving or smiling at some blond mother releasing blond progeny from her SUV or Hummer, and getting back a pinched, quizzical smile whose translation seemed to be: Who are you again? How could they not know, after months of daily mutual sightings? They were snobs or idiots or both, Stephanie told herself, yet she was inexplicably crushed by their coldness.
The topic was the presence of Al Qaeda in the New York area. Operatives were present, Bill confided, especially in the outer boroughs, possibly in communication with one another (Stephanie noticed Clay's pale eyebrows suddenly lift, and his head gave a single odd jerk, as if he had water in one ear), but the question was: how strong a link did they have to the mother ship—here Bill laughed—because any kook with a grudge could call himself Al Qaeda, but if he lacked money, training, backup (Clay gave another quick head shake, then flicked his eyes at Bennie, to his right), it made no sense to allocate resources…
"I want interviews, features, you name it," Bosco went on. "Fill up my life with that shit. Let's document every fucking humiliation. This is reality, right? You don't look good anymore twenty years later, especially when you've had half your guts removed. Time's a goon, right? Isn't that the expression?"
Entering Lulu's bedroom, Dolly felt like Dorothy waking up in Oz: everything was in color. A pink shade encircled the overhead lamp. Pink gauzy fabric hung from the ceiling. Pink winged princesses were stenciled onto the walls: Dolly had learned how to make the stencils in a jailhouse art class and had spent days decorating the room while Lulu was at school. Long strings of pink beads hung from the ceiling. When she was home, Lulu emerged from her room only to eat.
For months she'd done business with Lars, arriving sometimes without having managed to take anything, just needing money. "I thought he was my boyfriend," she said. "But I think I wasn't thinking anymore." She was better now, hadn't stolen anything in two years. "That wasn't me, in Naples," she told you, looking out at the crowded bar. "I don't know who it was. I feel sorry for her."
As you fail, knowing you're not supposed to panic—panicking will drain your strength—your mind pulls away as it does so easily…You slip through Sasha's open window, floating over the sill lined with artifacts from her travels: a white seashell, a small gold pagoda, a pair of red dice. Her harp in one corner with its small wood stool. She’s asleep in her narrow bed, her burned red hair dark against the sheets. You kneel beside her, breathing the familiar smell of Sasha's sleep, whispering into her ear some mix of I'm sorry and I believe in you and I'll always be near you, protecting you, and I will never leave you, I'll be curled around your heart for the rest of your life, until the water pressing my shoulders and chest crushes me awake and I hear Sasha screaming into my face: Fight! Fight! Fight!
Ted braced himself for his moody, unpredictable son. "Hiya, Alf!"
"Dad, don't use that voice."
"That fake 'Dad' voice."
"What do you want from me, Alfred? Can we have a conversation?"
"So you're what, five and eight?"
"Four and nine."
"Well. There's time."
"There's no time," said Alfred. "Time is running out." "
On another day more than twenty years after this one, after Sasha had gone to college and settled in New York; after she'd reconnected on Facebook with her college boyfriend and married late (when Beth had nearly given up hope) and had two children, one of whom was slightly autistic…Ted, long divorced—a grandfather—would visit Sasha at home in the California desert…And for an instant he would remember Naples: sitting with Sasha in her tiny room; the jolt of surprise and delight he'd felt when the sun finally dropped into the center of her window and was captured inside her circle of wire.
Now he turned to her, grinning. Her hair and face were aflame with orange light.
"See," Sasha muttered, eyeing the sun. "It's mine."
Mom makes sculptures in the desert out of trash and our old toys. Eventually her sculptures fall apart, which is “part of the process.”
Conduit: A Rock-and-Roll Suicide, by Jules Jones. Mom bought the book, but she never mentions it. It’s about a fat rock star who wants to die onstage, but ends up recovering and owning a dairy farm. There’s a picture of Mom on page 128…Mom’s mouth is smiling, but her eyes are sad. She looks like someone I want to know, or maybe even be.
At last he found Rebecca, smiling, holding Cara-Ann in her arms. She was dancing. They were too far away for Alex to reach them, and the distance felt irrevocable, a chasm that would keep him from ever again touching the delicate silk of Rebecca's eyelids, or feeling, through his daughter's ribs, the scramble of her heartbeat. Without the zoom, he couldn't even see them. In desperation, he T'd Rebecca, pls wAt 4me, my bUtiful wyf, then kept his zoom trained on her face until he saw her register the vibration, pause in her dancing, and reach for it.