“It’s Incredible How There’s Just Nothing There”
Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad may not seem to share a commonality at first glance, but both novels embody the basic themes of existentialism. Losing identities and questioning identities, striving for authenticity, and generally trying to figure out what life is all about and dealing with its absurdity are central themes that plague the characters from both books, seen most notably in The Road’s father and son and Sasha from A Visit From the Goon Squad.
In The Road the father and son have blatant issues of identity loss. Neither character is named in the novel and they never address each other by their first names either. Names have become meaningless in this bleak, gray, post-apocalyptic world. The rules of the old world have been cast away, including identity and the former rules governing the “self”. Without these identity cues, people are lost, flitting about the world with no personal anchor to keep them grounded . Not only do the father and boy struggle with being nameless, but this namelessness also manifests itself in the blur that sometimes occurs between their roles. There are times when the dialogue is ambiguous and it is unclear as to who is saying what.
A Visit From the Good Squad‘s Sasha has to face her own problems with identity. She makes her own sense of self by stealing things from others. Her self relies on “finding” objects lost. Objects that belonged to other selfs. In “recovering” these pieces of other selfs, she attempts to piece together her own sense of self, but how can a person have a complete self when it is contingent upon fragmented pieces of others scattered around? Sasha “no longer took things from stores”, opting instead to take things “only from people” (3). She does this in order to steal that part of self from others, something that cannot be stolen from a store. It is a “way for her to assert her toughness. Her individuality” (3). An object has to be owned by someone in order to absorb some of the essence of self from the owner.
If Sasha were to somehow be transported into the post-apocalyptic ashen world of The Road would she still be able to absorb others’ selfs through “found” items? All of The Road‘s survivors seem to have lost themselves, so the objects belonging to people in this strange new world do not have the same essence as those belonging to people in Sasha’s world. How would taking something out of the father’s and son’s cart affect Sasha and her stolen sense of self? It would most likely leave her feeling even more empty.
Another existentialist theme that runs throughout both novels is that of purposelessness. The meaning of life, if there is one, is obscured. The Road‘s father and son roam aimlessly, with survival the only thing on their minds; well, almost the only thing. There is one dull beacon of hope and that is for them to reach the beach. The beach holds opportunity, or so the father thinks. They head south, seeking warmer climates, with a bent towards the shore. The ocean rejuvenates, it is where life begins, and in reaching the ocean, the father hopes that some of that restorative power will wash over his son and himself. The beach and the journey there is what gives the father purpose.
When they finally reach the beach they fulfill their purpose only to find that that purpose, or promise, is broken. Rather than looking across a wide, clean expanse of nature where the death of the world could not touch, they instead find that they are looking at a “wall of smog across the horizon” (The Road 182). The beach is “Cold. Desolate. Birdless” (The Road 182). There is nothing where the father and son had put all of themselves to find everything. Their existential crises peaks at this point in the novel.
In A Visit From the Good Squad, Sasha’s existential crisis is forefront from the beginning because the beginning is actually the middle. Her crisis does not seem to have one defining catalyst, but rather a series of continuous events. She does not have a purpose, or at least she does not have one that she can define. Her life is full of listless moments, moments that bring her neither joy nor pain. She just “is”. She has a decent job, a decent apartment, decent health, but that is all. Everything is sub par. There is nothing that excites her; well, almost nothing. Finding things, stealing things, is the only thing that gives her a thrill. Again, her purpose is entirely linked to others. Her purpose is definitive on finding pieces of others. Even her purpose, or lack thereof, is not even her own.
A Visit From the Goon Squad covers the existential theme of eternal recurrence. In the novel, times are constantly mixed, confusing the reader as to what year and point of time is covered in each chapter. This is done deliberately for a number of reasons. One reason is to show the reader how memories are fleeting and a person’s recollection is not a chronological sequence. Another reason for this format is to simulate the jarring reality of time passing. More than this, though, is to show the abstract nature of time. Time is not something that occurs once and passes. Times are relieved again and again, in both memory and perhaps reality.
Nietzsche says that eternal recurrence is the phenomena that states a person lives many lives, not just one (Thus Spoke Zarathustra). People are forever stuck in an eternal recurrence, living out the same lives. Because of this eternal recurrence, a person needs to ensure that they live a “good life” since they will be doomed to repeat it an infinite amount of times. There is opportunity for a person to break free from living an unhappy life, to change their life into something pleasant to live again and again, but this “breaking free” is a difficult feat (Nietzsche Thus Spoke Zarathustra). All of the characters of A Visit From the Goon Squad are doomed to live in this eternal recurrence cycle.
Eternal recurrence takes a more chilling attribute when applied to The Road. If the father and son are doomed to relieve their lives, and the reader knows this, it makes the story that much bleaker. Imagine a life where you have to relieve constant fear, hunger, and desperation. In this scenario it seems impossible that the father or son would ever be able to break free from a negative eternal recurrence, because there is no way to make life brighter in such a gray and ashen world.
The Road certainly employs the point of view of “Godless existentialism”. Scholar and author Walter Kaufmann speaks of how “Godless existentialism” claims “we are told, by a bleak doctrine that proclaims that man is not at home in the world but thrown into it, that he has no divine father and is abandoned to a life of care, anxiety, and failure that will end with death, with nothing after that” (2). This perfectly illustrates McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic world. The son, particularly, is thrown into this bleak, lifeless world. He never knows a home, or what it feels like to have a home. His entire life, all that he has ever known and presumably all that he ever will know is a life of care, anxiety, and failure. There is no bright hope at the end of the tunnel. There is just surviving. The big question is why. Why do the characters bother to survive when they live in such a world of nothing?
While Egan’s world is certainly less dire than McCarthy’s, her characters seem only slightly less lost. In A Visit From the Goon Squad the characters are full of anxieties compounded by society. Selling is one of the top drives of their lives; selling records, not selling out, not selling your soul for that all mighty buck. Sasha lives her life full of care, anxiety, and the fear of failure. She “finds” the wallet in the washroom, she feels that thrill, but as soon as she is faced with the woman she stole from, she suddenly grows flush with worry, care, and anxiety. The fear of failure, of being caught, that “twang of terror” (7) takes her over.
Authenticity is another principle component of existentialism that is seen in both novels. In The Road it is impossible to be authentic because the father and son do not know who they are in the first place. How can one be authentic to themselves when they have no self? Or, at least, they have nothing more than a half-way murky shadow of a self. Still, authenticity is sought after by the father. He visits his old home, looking for his former self, for a piece of his self, but all he finds are fragments. He wants to share his old self with his son, but his son is so far removed from his own sense of self that he cannot relate to his father’s fruitless attempt.
Sasha tries to find authenticity, she tries to find that part of herself that makes her “her”. The problem is that she has no idea who she is. All she knows is the patchwork of different stolen identities that she surrounds herself with. The child’s scarf makes her young again, the binoculars help her to feel omniscient as if she can see far into the future, the pens help her to be better with words, the keys represent the secrets she keeps. All of this, all of these fragments, keep her from fulfilling her own authenticity. In the future she finds her authenticity better, just maybe…maybe.
Finally, the overall purposelessness and absurdity of life is first and foremost in both The Road and A Visit From the Goon Squad. The father in The Road is painfully aware of this absurdity and meaningless of life. He cannot even do something as little, or important, as distinguishing the day. He thinks to himself that it is “late in the year. He hardly knew the month. He thought they had enough food to get through the mountain but there was no way to tell” (25). There is no way to tell anything in this world, particularly in a world in which there are no defining marks or posts to identify life with. There are names. There are no days anymore, just time blurring in and out, into and out of one giant ashen mess.
In A Visit From the Good Squad Sasha quotes Bennie as saying “Five years is five hundred years” (26). It may as well be. Time, events, people do not matter. Life goes on, or it doesn’t. Nothing really matters. Sasha could be the woman walking up the stairs to her apartment in New York City or another woman in her clothes and her life could be walking up those stairs. It is all arbitrary. It is all meaningless. The story begins with a toilet, ends with stairs. Life can be drained, flushed away or, if you are lucky, it could be an upward ascension towards something better. There is no way to tell. As Sasha puts it, “It’s incredible how there’s just nothing there” (Goon 28).
Egan, Jennifer. A Visit From the Goon Squad. OnRead pdf book online. Web. 28 November 2012.
Kaufmann, Walter. From Shakespeare to Existentialism. Princeton: New Jersey, 1980. Print.
McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. Knopf: New York, 2007. Print.
Nietzsche, Freidrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. Penguin: New York, 1966. Print.