The Stars Are Indispensable

This is a 3:AM review of Jennifer Egan’s wonderful A Visit from the Goon Squad. The title is from a phenomenal passage from Philip Roth, which this book made me think about. Here’s the Roth passage:

On the night Murray left I recalled how, as a small child, I’d been told – as a small child unable to sleep because his grandfather had died and he insisted on understanding where the dead man had gone – that Grandpa had been turned into a star. My mother took me out of bed and down into the driveway beside the house and together we looked straight up at the night sky while she explained that one of those stars was my grandfather. Another was my grandmother, and so on. What happens when people die, my mother explained, is that they go up to the sky and live on forever as gleaming stars. I searched the sky and said “Is he that one?” and she said yes, and we went back inside and I fell asleep.

That explanation made sense then and, of all things, it made sense again on the night when, wide awake from the stimulus of all that narrative engorgement, I lay out of doors till dawn, thinking that Ira was dead, that Eve was dead, that all the people with a role in Murray’s account of the Iron Man’s unmaking were now no longer impaled on their moment but dead and free of the traps set for them by their era. Neither the ideas of their era nor the expectations of our species were determining destiny: hydrogen alone was determining destiny. There are no longer mistakes for Eve or Ira to make. There is no betrayal. There is no idealism. There are no falsehoods. There is neither conscience nor its absence. There are no mothers and daughters, no fathers and stepfathers. There are no actors. There is no class struggle. There is no discrimination or lynching or Jim Crow, nor has there ever been. There is no injustice, nor is there justice.

There are no utopias. There are no shovels…There is just the furnace of Ira and the furnace of Eve burning at twenty million degrees. There is the furnace of novelist Katrina Van Tassel Grant, the furnace of Congressman Bryden Grant, the furnace of taxidermist Horace Bixton, and of miner Tommy Minarek, and of flutist Pamela Solomon, and of Estonian masseuse Helgi Parn, and of lab technician Doris Ringold, and of Doris’s uncle-loving daughter, Lorraine. There is the furnace of Karl Marx and of Joseph Stalin and of Leon Trotsky and of Paul Robeson and of Johnny O’Day. There is the furnace of Tailgunner Joe McCarthy. What you see from this silent rostrum up on my mountain on a night as splendidly clear as that night Murray left me for good – for the very best of loyal brothers, the ace of English teachers, died in Phoenix two months later – is that universe into which error does not obtrude. You see the inconceivable: the colossal spectacle of no antagonism. You see with your own eyes the vast brain of time, a galaxy of fire set by no human hand.

The stars are indispensable.

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