The difference between hiking and walking is bear attacks. If you get attacked by a bear, you were probably hiking.
Jennifer Egan’s 2011 A Visit from the Goon Squad won that year’s Pulitzer Prize and was an international bestseller. It could easily be one of those novels whose existence began as the author heard one particular phrase, “Time’s a goon.” The phrase appears enough times throughout the book for it to stick, and for the title to make perfect sense.
Egan’s book revolves loosely (and yet, at the same time, so very tightly) around Bennie and Sasha—a music producer and his long-time assistant. Really, we only get a couple of intimate chapters for each character, and the rest of the book is about people who, in any other book, would just be secondary and even tertiary characters. Instead, Egan has taken the role of narrator and elevated it to a level that is at once removed and direct: the book is simply told as a collective of stories, a cast of characters who have a very real existence. It is not unlike Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, a movie whose storyline is so basic that its real artfulness comes in the dissection of its timeline, and whose characters are so rich that the idea of a main character doesn’t seem to fit. Why? Perhaps because that is the better story, the one that revolves around the idea that a main character cannot, and in this case does not, exist without the influence of other, equally important characters.
This richness of character is the real heart of the story, not music. There is no discernible way that this book is ever about music any more than it is about art, family, silence, and, most importantly, time. Time is the goon, and the Goon Squad is the cast of characters that is aged without mercy. Children grow up to be sexual beings, sexual beings get older and put on life support, some people in the transition from child to sexual being wind up drowning. Oh, and all along the way there’s divorce, children, technology, real estate development, prostitution, poverty, redemption, and haunting memory. Not haunting in a doomed sense—not that there is some dark secret to haunt our characters—but in the way that you reflect on a bad social situation from ten, fifteen years ago and cringe at yourself. The way memory can either flicker in a haze or burst forth in searing clarity.
When you finish A Visit from the Goon Squad, you get the feeling that the subject wasn’t really Sasha or Bennie. Thanks in part to the final chapter’s devotion to Alex, a character whom we think will just be a random character Sasha dates and fucks in the first chapter. But no. Alex returns fifteen years later, working with Bennie. By now, we know that Sasha lives in the desert and is married to a doctor, has two children (one of whom is presumably autistic, and he deeply values pauses in time, or holding off the goon), and is no longer the Sasha we know (this role is transferred to her daughter). The world around Alex is foreign to us: it’s the future, and it’s run by a younger generation that is, as always, incomprehensible. Really, Egan is writing about us, and we get that she’s been writing about us the whole time. The future is never for us. What was once cool is lame, what once was childish is now professionalism. The irresponsible are now in charge, and whether we have the whole picture or are living in the thick of it, it never quite feels right. The only thing for us, the only thing that’s ever been exclusively for each and every one of us, is a visit from our own goon squads.
Don’t mention my sperm and your egg have joined.
Bone Machine first appeared on Pindeldyboz.com on July 9, 2007
The order goes cattle, pig, and at the end of the day the butchers get worn out and hack too much at the pigs’ bodies, leaving them mangled with bone shards and gritty marrow spilled on the tile. I flood the butcher room to wash out the blood and I watch the animal cells with their mitochondria and golgi bodies gush down the hole in the floor. Then I pick bone fragments the size of my thumbnail out of the mesh drain.
Today, the butchers twisted an oxtail cut in the band saw, the oval bone blackened and misshaped, and left it on the floor, kicked beneath a stainless steel table. I pick off most the meat and put the bone in my hip pocket so I can feel it jab my pelvis as I steam the slabs.
When I get home, Anise is asleep on the couch, her shirt shifted so I can see her bellybutton like a plastic valve on a beach ball. She sweats in her sleep, her dark hair is damp and heavy and matted to the phone. The antenna nearly stabs her eardrum. The storm coming in blocks the radio signal, and the mint-green stereo backlight flickers across Anise’s skin as the station fades in and out. She looks like an aquarium display. I crouch by her in the dark and green, press my hand to her belly and feel for kicks. Beneath her skin, our child pats my palm. The dual heartbeat is its cells growing.
I don’t want Anise to wake, so I head in a lanky, sneaky gait to my closet-studio by the bathroom. The studio door shuts softly on the felt, leftover from the once-darkroom. I turn on the white halogen lamp, and put the oxtail in a metal tub where I will dissolve the remaining meat with acid. I select a new bone shard, the size of two thumbnails, from the margarita glass and clamp it in the silver alligator clip by the magnifying glass.
First, I shape the bone with a rasp, then I take a steel gouge to carve the features. Today, I carve out gills, scales, and oversized eyes for the Carassius auratus, or goldfish. When it’s done, Anise will say “Cute,” and I will smooth and polish the piece with a swatch of hard leather. As I carve the fish’s exaggerated puffy cheeks, he calls.
I keep a list of things Anise is not to mention to my father taped to the phone. I hear Anise answer in her half-sleep voice.
Don’t mention school.
Don’t mention you’re white.
Don’t mention my sperm and your egg have joined.
God, please don’t mention your mother’s Jewish.
Anise knocks, then opens the door and steps in. The room shrinks.
“You smell like bleach again,” she says, handing me the phone.
“You smell like bleach?” Father.
“I was cleaning the kitchen. Salmonella. I made curried chicken,” I say.
Anise lifts her shirt and presses her belly against my arm.
“Your mother cleans with just hot water,” Father says.
“Mother grew up in a felt hut,” I pat Anise’s stomach.
“Clay. She lived in a clay house. Her parents weren’t nomads.”
“How are your studies?”
Don’t mention school.
“Are your marks good?”
Anise mouths the word, “Feel.” The baby kicks my palm. Hard.
“I have a job.”
Don’t mention the baby.
“Why? Am I not sending enough?” Father asks.
“You send enough.”
“We don’t have to spend so much. Your mother loves the shopping, though. She always tell me about going to the bazaar, ‘Oh at the bazaar I never thought I would be able to afford anything, we were so poor when I was a child. I thought I would have to barter my life away.’ She—“
“You don’t have to stop shopping.”
“Tell him to send money for a ring,” Anise says, her eyes widen and she clasps her hands over her mouth.
“What did she say?”
“She asked how mother is. How she likes Dubai.”
“She misses Tehran. Too much construction here.”
“I read one-fourth of the world’s construction cranes are in Dubai,” I say.
“Probably. Your mother went shopping last week.”
“The Shopping Festival started a couple of weeks ago. There are millions of people walking around Dubai with tote bags.”
“Kiss me,” I whisper.
Anise leans down and puts her lips against my cheek. She smells better than Clorox and is less stuffy than steam. I palm her belly and the built-up fumes make me feel like I’m floating in cytoplasm. We can bypass the membrane by osmosis, leave everything else on the outside. It will just be the three of us, two chromosomes and the nucleus.
“I’ll tell him,” I think aloud.
“Did I tell you about the Premier?” Father asks.
My father was a refrigeration mechanic. He owned the largest refrigeration company in Iran. The Premier wanted to refrigerate his bedroom with fifty feet of brass tubing. My father told him to do the job correctly he would need nearly one thousand feet. Then my father became popular. He installed refrigeration tubes for representatives, ministers, even the Shah. Turning a house into a refrigerator was cheaper than air conditioning at the time. Then he retired and moved to Dubai.
“You always tell me about the Premier,” I say.
“That’s all it takes. No compromises. Ingenuity. I didn’t do anything special, Adel. I don’t want you feeling incomplete, living off my money. I want you to be a professional,” I can hear the spit in his mouth like he’s just eaten candy.
Don’t mention the baby because it’s not on Father’s to-do list.
“That’s why I got a job.”
“I see,” he says.
Don’t mention your mother because Father has prejudices.
Anise picks up a finished, polished pig and dances it in front of my face, cooing.
Don’t mention the baby because we are not married. We are not married because he has not met you. He has not met you because you are white. You are a Jew.
“Anise is pregnant.”
“And school?” Father asks.
School is not pregnant. I am no longer in the school’s womb. It won’t pop out a Dr. Adel Shirazi.
“I see. What is your work?”
“I clean pig blood out of a butcher shop,” I say.
I ask Anise to sit in my lap, to hand me the small drill. I put a hole in the fish’s dorsal fin, then run silk thread through the hole. Anise hands me the hanging mass of silk thread and pig bone, and I tie the new fish onto the baby’s mobile: the driveless mechanism. The bone machine.
I show Anise the oxtail bone, with the edges singed by the butcher’s band saw. I’ll hang it by braided silk in the center of the mobile. The oxtail is going to be the nucleus of the bone machine, and I’m going to carve our child’s initials into it.
Ignacio stopped by a prostitute sleeping in front of his apartment, “Wake up,” he told her, “I want you to stay with me.”
Optimism first appeared alongside Lucky Jack in Happy, issue 20
Ignacio’s thin fingers worked over the pile of moist, crushed tobacco atop a single, perfect leaf. In a swift movement, his hands manipulated the leaf into a long tube and met his tongue, and as his right hand set the finished cigar in the stack, his left grabbed another full leaf, and as soon as it was on his worn wooden tabletop, his right hand had returned to put a line of tobacco on it again. The same quick movement turned it from pile to cigar, and he completed his two-hundredth cigar of the day.
His head was wrapped in the elastic band from a pair of underwear, wrapped in a cotton cloth, it was wet as if from swimming in the ocean, the sweat dripped in his eyes. The sound in the room was the swish and rustle of tobacco leaves, thousands of paper-thin, thick-veined leaves being twisted, licked, and stacked, there was the machine-gun-like taktaktak of the single oscillating fan in the corner of the room, the blades scraping the metal cover, slightly off balance. At the front of the room sat a man reading a book into a microphone.
“’This is a foolish scheme,’ the King told them. ‘I am well aware that my country is nothing to write home about; but when you are reasonably happy somewhere, you should stay put.’”
Ignacio stumbled when he heard the last line read aloud. He dropped his leaf and tobacco scattered across his table. Around him he heard the twisting and wrapping of dry leaves, the light hollow plops of the finished cigars being stacked together. As he tried to push the tobacco onto the large leaf, he heard only more cigars being completed. When he recovered and stacked his cigar, he calculated that he would be short by five cigars by the end of the day. He tried to hurry once before, but the anticipation of quickening each careful gesture had caused him to crush a leaf, and he had to hide it in his sweatband. Today, he would be short by five.
On his walk home, Ignacio counted twelve moths as large as his hand clinging to the screen door of a closed tailor’s shop. He picked one up, its body as thick as two of his fingers, and it spread its orange wings out far past his palms. Its body was velvety and plump, covered with small antennae-like protrusions. He wished to see it in flight, so he tossed it, and it fell, like a glider made of cheese. It waddled in the street, then adjusted its wings and hunched down. A cab came by, its engine roaring and echoing off the closed-in walls of the dirt street, and crushed the bright moth. It didn’t flinch and it didn’t twitch. Ignacio flicked at another moth on the screen and it fell to the sidewalk, stretched its wings, and didn’t flinch or twitch as its green and black body was crushed by Ignacio’s heel. He shrugged and walked into a bar down the street.
Ignacio ordered a pitcher of beer with Carlos, who worked two tables over from Ignacio.
“I crushed a cigar today,” Carlos said.
Ignacio shrugged, “I crushed a moth.”
Carlos nodded, then removed the two halves of his crushed cigar, still carefully rolled.
Smoke clouds surrounded their heads, their hands glowed bright orange in the haze of smoke and the dim lighting of the bar. Beyond the smoke, they saw dim streetlamps and a permanent strangling of dust in the air, perpetually hanging, a neon sign somewhere close by attacked puffs of the smoke, turning it red and green.
Ignacio shrugged again, at nothing.
“We are in with the best,” one of them said.
“There are people not nearly as educated as the two of us.”
“They think we are slaves,” Ignacio said.
Carlos nodded, “We are slaves.”
“All is well,” Carlos drank from his mug. “But not necessarily for the best.”
“Good night,” one said.
Carlos nodded; Ignacio shrugged.
Ignacio stopped by a prostitute sleeping in front of his apartment, “Wake up,” he told her, “I want you to stay with me.”
She stood from the dirt lining the sidewalk but didn’t brush it from her clothes. He held out his hand and she took it, ran her fingers along the layer of tobacco covering his fingerprints. She had a memory of picking cherries from a tree as a girl, feeling the hard, smooth bark of the limb as she balanced on the ladder, then pulling off the fruits and being tickled by the juice running down her arm. She kissed him and he pulled away.
She fought for his face in the dark, her hands grasping for his cheeks, his heavy jaw she had just felt. He was gone, opening the door to his apartment for her, he took her by the shoulder and led her to the kitchen.
He poured her a glass of nectar and dropped in ice cubes. She drank it and sat at his metal table, the yellow paint flaking off to the tile floor. She set the glass down hard and it startled Ignacio, who was stuffing a cornhusk with figs and honey. Her eyebrows were raised but she was watching the swirls of water melt away from the ice cubes. He placed the husk into a steamer.
In the corner of the kitchen, where it opened into a small room with a radio and a couch, by a stained section of the stucco wall, was Ignacio’s dog, which smacked its gums briefly and then yawned. The two ignored the dog.
“Do you have a wife?”
Ignacio shrugged, “No wife.”
“But you have a dog.”
He nodded, “And chickens.”
“They live in the orchard,” he handed her the steaming husk.
“With the dog?”
Ignacio nodded, “Oranges and lemons, and cherries.”
They walked in the light of a moon sliver, carefully between rows of citrus heavy trees, the thick waxy leaves shooting silver light like flimsy stretched coins across the ground. He sat her beneath a tree and told her to hold out her skirt like a basket. In the dark, she heard only the rustling of leaves together, they drew away from her and became quiet, then there was a pelting over her dress. Cherries fell wildly from above until her arms grew heavy, and then Ignacio was beside her again. She was crying silently.
“Marry me?” He asked her.
She nodded, and let the cherries spill into the dirt.
“Then we are married,” he told her, pulling her dress over her head.
She smelled the tobacco on his fingers as they read her body in the dark.
In the morning, Ignacio carried her into his apartment and placed her in his bed, he ate an orange on his way to the shop, and stopped in the road to pick up the dried remains of the moth that had been killed the night before. He dropped it in the wind and this time it floated away down the street, off into an alley where he was sure it fell back to the road.
Along the roads, Ignacio counted the high soaring billboards with the image of some detached and idealized potentate. He shrugged and walked into the double-hung doors of the cigar warehouse and sat at his seat and immediately began rolling cigars.
During his break, he ate honey-covered pineapple in the shade of an alley. Carlos hadn’t arrived and there was confusion with the owner of the shop as to where exactly he could be. He was fired already, but they wanted to find him so they could beat him. There was solemnity later in the day as Ignacio wrapped cigars, and it turned out Carlos had been killed in a fight the previous night, after Ignacio had left the bar, over the words, “It is the price we pay for the cigars you smoke in Europe.”
At the end of the road grew flowers, dusty wild flowers choked with aphids. But they were free, and they were large, and Ignacio collected a handful for his wife. He stood at the edge of the road, by the wooden sign pointing to some other place on the small island, to some place exactly the same as where he stood, for where he stood all was as well as it could be, and if he walked a block or a mile, it would still be as well. He wondered if past the water, lying a few hundred yards out from the edge of the road, off the small cliff, if things stayed just as well as they were, if he had the best of everything.
The water lapped quietly at the shore, and the bright orange beams cutting through the surging waves sliced into Ignacio’s vision. He heard a jet engine far above him, and he wondered if his feeling was of complacency or apathy, and he thought of the world towards which the jet traveled, whether it would be better or worse than the one he knew, and he supposed that if he was curious enough to ask, it might as well be better.
Flowers made his wife sneeze, but she thanked him and put them in water. He gave her a bottle of wine and two glasses, and asked if she wouldn’t like to sit in the orchard.
Her name was Mariana, she was twenty-seven, and had been a prostitute for most of her life. She liked fruit, and she liked Ignacio’s orchard. Beyond this, she did not wish to speak, and beyond this, Ignacio was comfortable not to hear. Between them, they did not need perfection.
She gathered the cherry pits they had collected between them in the dirt and told him she would make them both matching rings out of them, and for herself she would make a necklace.
When asked if she would still sleep with other men, she replied, “I’m where I want to be,” and Ignacio shrugged.
In the morning, Ignacio dressed in the dark pants and tie that Mariana had set out for him on the kitchen chair. For her, Ignacio removed the meter-wide skillet from the wall and cooked a large sweet waffle, drizzled with cane syrup heated with blackberries. She walked into the kitchen naked, tried the waffle, and told Ignacio she wanted him inside her.
Ignacio was late for work, so he was able to notice an older cigar maker now occupied Carlos’ spot. No one looked up except the man reading from the book into the microphone, who commented with hand gestures that he liked Ignacio’s silk tie, stained now with syrup and blackberries, he then continued to read, “…taking that virginity in the person of the brother-in-law, the man whom he would be if he could become, metamorphose into, the lover, the husband…”
Mariana stood on the sidewalk outside the cigar shop, holding a sandwich for Ignacio. The men leaving didn’t notice except that Ignacio now had a wife where once he might not have. They were smiling at each other in a stream of cold expressions lit by the intense sun.
She kissed him goodbye, her dress flapped in the light breeze like wings, her brown legs ambling away, her body movements fluidlike. A truck came up the street and slowed for Mariana to pass by, and she disappeared behind it. The truck lurched forward and stopped in the street in front of the cigar shop. Cigar makers, ready to resume work, now gathered around the truck.
The man who read the book held a banana in his hand and worked a piece around in his mouth, on his lip was a small moist crumb.
“Back to work,” the shop owner said, and the crowd went back inside the small clay oven to their respective tables.
While the workers rolled cigars, there came from the ceiling the sound of heavy footsteps moving back and forth, and outside was the sound of diesel machinery revving and waning. The revving turned into a taktaktak louder than the machine-gun-like oscillating fan in the corner. Finally, there was a cry, an ungodly snapping sound, and a plangent of distress on the ceiling, where a large silver and black box fell from the roof through the ceiling, and into a crate of stacked cigars. The man reading the book into the microphone stopped, the workers quit rolling cigars, and the men who had been on the roof now peered through the giant hole and into their destruction bed.
The shop closed early and so the workers all went home to sleep instead of to the bars.
Mariana smiled and waved when she saw Ignacio from the balcony, she was reading a magazine.
“They tried to install air conditioning today, they crushed our cigars,” Ignacio said.
That night, the bats came out and swarmed the town, in the morning the smell was like an old coffee bean, acrid and sharp. At lunch he received notice, from Mariana, that his brother, the alcoholic, had died in a house fire, which was his own fault. His brother had willed the house to Ignacio, but since there was no house, Ignacio now had an empty lot. Ignacio asked for two days off. One day was for his brother’s funeral, the other was to sell the empty lot.
Ignacio gave the eulogy at his brother’s memorial service, there was no body like there was no house. “Things are now as they should be,” he said, “but this does not mean that things are good.”
The church was being used for a baptism later, so the memorial service was cut short. Ignacio was the last person in his family, aside from Mariana, still living. She asked about his brother.
“His name was Kike`,” he said. “When we were little, he was in the hospital for a long time with tuberculosis. They finally let him out, and I was so happy that I chased him around town, he tried to hop the church fence,” he pointed to the wrought iron fence surrounding the cemetery. “He put his hand flat on one of those spires, with all his weight, it went straight through his palm like a crucifix.”
The next day at the bank, Ignacio took the first offer the bank gave him because 1) he was not greedy and 2) it was already a generous sum that did not require being taxed.
When he finished at the bank, he took a bus to the adjacent town, which was the only place to buy a semi-new car. The majority of the stock was sedans and old American cars that would only be used as taxis. In the corner, however, was a long car with a small British flag painted on the fender. The hood said Jensen, and the small badge along the side said Interceptor.
Mariana was making coffee when the walls of their apartment rattled. A picture of a single cherry, which Mariana had painted and Ignacio had framed, shook off the wall and fell to the floor.
She looked out the window and saw Ignacio waving from the driver’s seat, revving the eight cylinders just outside their apartment.
They drove that night to the highway that ran by the airport, they parked in the grass and watched the jets launch from the flat ground and lift gracefully into the air, soaring away with a racket like a beast. They were as lumpy and disproportioned as the giant moths. When they came in to land it looked like a controlled freefall, angled perfectly in order to keep the passengers alive. It was subdued chaos. Ignacio asked Mariana if she would like to see what other worlds there were.
“Even if this is the worst of all possible worlds,” she said, “Then no.”
As she said this, a launching airplane erupted in flames, followed by the taktaktak of real machine guns. A rocket appeared from the darkness and struck the runway, illuminating the interior of the Jensen. Things are getting worse, Ignacio thought, and that isn’t necessarily good.
I bought a fancy coffee maker with a bunch of different settings. It’s so fancy I don’t even have to drink the coffee. By the time I figure out how to turn it on I’m wide awake.
I hate waiting for my food at restaurants, because I have no idea if the person who took my order was serious or just messing with me.
“Yeah, I’d like a bowl of pasta, too. Good luck.”
When your parents are really mad, they don’t know your name. They just know you’re some asshole who’s fucking up all their shit. My mother would call us every name in the family—because that’s who she was mad at, the whole family. But you couldn’t understand her because she’d clench her teeth and run all her words together.
My brothers and I would be like, “Who’s in trouble? Pocahontas? I heard Pocahontas.”
“That bitch is in trouble. Mom’s pissed.”