Read the first excerpt from the A Visit From the Goon Squad companion novel
My cousin Sasha had lived in the desert for twenty years before I discovered she had become an artist. I was looking at her kids' social media stories, as I often did with people I used to know, to see how they'd aged and try to gauge their happiness, when I saw a post from her son: "Proud of my Mom," with a link to an article about Sasha in ARTnews. The picture showed dozens of hot-air balloons suspended above rambling, colorful sculptures stretched out across the California desert. According to the article, Sasha made these forms out of discarded plastic. Later she melted the sculptures down to create compressed bricks that had been displayed and sold, along with aerial photos of that same plastic in sculptural form, at art galleries.
Sasha! What the hell!
If anyone had required proof that life's outcomes are impossible to predict, this development would have supplied it. Sasha had been a f---up all the way into her thirties: a kleptomaniac who'd managed to pilfer countless items from countless people over countless years. How did I know?Because right before she married Drew, in 2008, she started returning things. Everyone in the family received an item or two, sometimes of so little value that it was amazing Sasha remembered what belonged to whom. My dad got a Bic pen, the kind they sold in bags of twenty at Staples. I, too, received a pen, but mine was a Montblanc worth several hundred dollars. I'd nearly had a brain hemorrhage when it vanished after a family dinner at a Korean restaurant while I was visiting New York. I'd phoned the restaurant, the taxi authority, the MTA; I'd retraced my steps through Koreatown, bent at the waist to scrutinize gutters. When that very same pen showed up in my mailbox a couple of years later with a handwritten note that began, "Since my teenage years I have struggled with a compulsion to steal, which has been a source of great anguish to me, and of loss and frustration to many others," I called my dad.
"I know," he said. "I got a Bic. I'm not even sure it's mine, it might have belonged to the restaurant."
"Can we please be done with her, Dad?" I asked. "Once and for all? She's incorrigible."
"She's the opposite of incorrigible. She's making amends."
"I don't want her amends. I want her to disappear."
"What makes you say things like that, Miles?"
I remember exactly where I was standing when we had that conversation: on the deck of the lakeside Winnetka home Trudy and I had over leveraged ourselves to buy (she was pregnant with Polly, our first) and painstakingly decorated together: the site of a planned domestic idyll of children, holidays, and family reunions that we'd rapturously envisioned since meeting in law school at the University of Chicago. Holding my phone, looking out at twinkling Lake Michigan, I understood with sudden clarity that doing the right thing — being right — gets you nothing in this world. It's the sinners everyone loves: the flailers, the scramblers, the bumblers. There was nothing sexy about getting it right the first time.
F--- Sasha, I thought.
I'm fully aware that Sasha emerges from these descriptions as sympathetic, whereas I come off as a moralizing prig. I was a moralizing prig, and not just toward my cousin. My father, who treated Sasha as a daughter and whom I saw as her enabler; my mother, whose romantic adventures since my parents' divorce I found sickening; my younger brothers, Ames and Alfred, both of whom I'd deemed "lost" before they turned twenty-five — no one escaped the roving, lacerating beam of my judgment. I can access that beam even now, decades later: a font of outraged impatience with other people's flaws. How had the human species managed to survive for millennia? How had we built civilizations and invented antibiotics when practically no one, other than Trudy and me, seemed capable of sucking it up and just getting things done?
If anything can be said in defense of the person I was in 2008, the year Sasha made amends and Polly was born — the year I turned thirty — it can be only that I was least forgiving of myself. Every move I made was aimed at harrying myself toward greater excellence. But certain things, like sleep, resist rigid control. In high school, my insomnia had made it possible to excel academically while also playing three varsity sports, working for a tree pruning company, and pleasing a finicky girlfriend. I bridged the gaps with peanut butter, which I ate by the jar, and teenage energy. But Polly was colicky, and by then I was the youngest partner in my law firm's history, and the workload was crushing. I started taking sleeping pills at night and Adderall in the morning to get me going — and eventually throughout the day to keep me sharp. When the Adderall made me jangly, I'd calm down with Xanax or Percocet in the afternoon before knocking myself out with more sleeping pills at bedtime. I saw this metabolic tinkering as nothing more than taking care of business, and the ease with which I chemically managed my deficits, coupled with a slight drug nausea I often felt, made me doubly impatient with everyone else. I became, as they say, "irritable" — hard to work for and harder to live with. My high standards intensified the pressure I felt personally, which meant that I wasn't home with our kids enough (three in five years, in keeping with our plan) or much of a partner for Trudy — who had suspended her law career to enable our childrearing — sexually or in any other way. All of which made me more irritable, because I sensed that I was failing when all I'd ever done, my whole life, was try to succeed.
To the naked eye, things still looked fine at that point. I was bringing in business and seeing it through, albeit at the cost of some popularity at my firm. At home, everyone seemed happy, as I reminded myself daily by checking Trudy's Facebook — later, her Instagram feed. She was a genius at capturing offhand moments and making them look iconic. Scrolling through her trips to the beach, the park, the zoo (often with our neighbor Janna and her four kids) — ice cream dribbling from chins; a video of crayoned pinwheels twirling in the breeze — I could actually feel my heartbeat slow, my blood calm. Any fragment of time I'd managed to wrest from work and spend with them was always front and center, and I gorged on Trudy's shots of Polly hugging me; of Michael, our older son, throwing me a ball; of me spooning mashed bananas into the mouth of Timothy, our baby. Everything was fine, I told myself, drawing deep breaths at my cherrywood desk in my towering, glassy office. They were still there, still happy — we were happy, all five of us in our beautiful home by the lake, exactly as Trudy and I had fantasized after making love between law school classes — just waiting for me to come back.
EXCERPTED FROM THE CANDY HOUSE BY JENNIFER EGAN.COPYRIGHT © 2022 BY JENNIFER EGAN. REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION OF SCRIBNER, A DIVISION OF SIMON & SCHUSTER, INC.