The Millions Interview

Novelist-of-the-Future: A Profile of Jennifer Egan

By posted at 6:57 am on July 12, 2010 5

There once was a little girl named Jenny, who lived in Chicago and went to nursery school with a little girl named Sally.  Sally’s family moved into the apartment below Jenny’s family, and Jenny’s mother and Sally’s mother were pregnant with the girls’ little brothers at the same time.  Sally’s little brother was named Paul, but Jenny always thought of him as “Sally’s little brother,” even after she moved to San Francisco, and grew up, and moved to New York, and became a writer.  One evening in the not-so-distant past, Jenny, now the author of many well-regarded books of fiction, turned on the television, and who did she see on the screen but Sally’s little brother!   He was an actor, and he was on a television show, and this television show had brought him to Jenny’s living room.  Just like that.

Meanwhile, a girl grew up in Los Angeles, reading a lot of books, wanting to be a writer.  Okay, okay, it’s me.  After graduate school, I moved back to Los Angeles and kept writing.  I went to Ohio for a semester to teach, and as the snow fell (and kept falling), I discovered and fell in love with the work of Jennifer Egan.  I even wrote Ms. Egan a fan email, something I’d never done before.  She actually wrote back.  She signed her name “Jenny” and I felt a geeky thrill.  Jenny!

coverOn a recent Saturday, back in Los Angeles, I held a writing class, and one of the students looked familiar to me, but I couldn’t place him–had I seen him at Skylight?  On my coffee table was an advance copy of A Visit from the Goon Squad.  “Is this out yet?” the student asked, and I explained it wasn’t yet, not until June.  “But I’m interviewing her,” I said–bragged, probably. “I am so excited!” I said.  “Jennifer Egan is one of my favorite writers.”  The student smiled and just then I realized, Hey, he’s on that TV show.  “Jenny’s my sister’s oldest friend,” he said.  This was Paul, of course, Sally’s little brother. Just like that, Paul, Jenny and I were connected, and it felt like a tiny miracle.

It also felt like a page from A Visit from the Goon Squad, where characters move in and out of one another’s lives, and where a minor character in one chapter becomes the protagonist in the next.  When I met Egan for our aforementioned interview, she told me the story of how she knew Paul, saying that seeing him on TV was “the kind of odd surprise that I was trying to capture here,”–she pointed to her book–“the completely unexpected ways that people encounter and see each other over many years.”  We were sitting at a round picnic table outside Diesel Bookstore in Brentwood, where she would be reading that afternoon.  I was born and raised in L.A., but I’d never been here before.

A Visit from the Goon Squad has been called a novel-in-stories by many critics, including our very own Sonya Chung, whose perspicacious review describes the book as being “populated by has-beens, suicidals, idealists, divorcees (aka serial monogamists), romantics, and ex-prisoners, many of whom have been chewed up and spit out by the soul-less music and film industries, or the PR machine that fuels them.”  It’s the best description of the book’s content one might come by, but I’m not sure about the novel-in-stories label.  Although each chapter can stand on its own, and though each differs in tone and form, the book still coalesced whole in my mind, its world burrowing into my imagination, as only novels can do.  It was also readable like a novel, even with all of its formal shifts.  It’s a novel-of-the-future, maybe, and not just because one chapter is written in PowerPoint.

When I asked Egan about the book’s genre, she said,  “It’s so decentralized that it doesn’t quite fit what I think we think of as novels being right now.  And I don’t really care about the term. It doesn’t fit into a category comfortably…I didn’t really worry about an arc, because again, that feels more like traditional fiction.”  She wanted to put together a book whose principal was diversity, as opposed to unity. “I wanted to see how many tones and moods and technical choices I could get away with.”  (For instance:  though ultimately unsuccessful, she tried to write a chapter in epic poetry.)  Egan’s goal, she said, was to make the book “a big cornucopia of craziness, and yet, have it all fit together into one story. I asked myself: Since the principal was one of surprise and revelation, and intimacy versus distance, my basic question was, Who is the person we see from a distance that we want to have revealed to us?

This decision to follow various characters at different points was inspired in part by Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and, also, The Sopranos. Of the HBO show, she said, “I loved the way there were all these different narratives that intertwined over a long period, and different characters were the main characters at different times.  I wanted to play with that, and I felt like I hadn’t seen that very much in novels.  I didn’t want the centrality of a conventional novel.”  She continued:

Also, one thing that is particular to The Sopranos, is that it’s so much about the chasm between public and private life…there’s a cliché about mob shows, and Tony Soprano is totally a clichéd character in certain ways. And yet, the fun of the show is being thrust into his private life and feeling the weird contrast between those two. That was a lot of what I wanted to do with this book: take people who seem to be clichéd from a distance and break them open, and show all of their nuances and secrets.

Bennie Salazar is definitely one such character: a teenage punk rocker in San Francisco who becomes a successful–and thus jaded–music executive, nursing past humiliations as he sprinkles flakes of pure gold into his coffee.  As a consumer of culture, I’ve seen his type before, and yet, drawn by Egan, his history, pain and desires become specific and complex.

I asked her how the Sopranos-approach to storytelling echoed or contrasted with Proust’s, and she told me they were more alike than I might realize, partially because both are such long narratives.  There’s a similar “braiding of lives,” she said.

Everyone called The Sopranos novelistic and I really do understand why, because with Proust, similarly, there are people you see at a distance and then suddenly know closely, but then you just see in passing years later, and there’s something very surprising about them that you weren’t expecting.  Proust plays with the way in which time itself creates and reveals surprise.  That change is surprising, even though it’s so steady, so constant.

If  narrative itself is a depiction of time passing (“and then this happened; and then this happened”), one would assume that a narrative about the passage of time would consider the subject through the very mechanism its existence depends upon.  Egan does just that.  For instance, in “Safari” (and in the final passages of “Goodbye, My Love”), she employs an omniscient third-person point of view that pulls out of the present story to compress time and speed forward.  This narrator can tell us about a character’s future–an entire marriage, for instance, or the long term effects of someone’s death on a family–in just a few sentences.  The compression of time is heartbreaking in its efficiency, and it’s a formal reflection of the thematic motif of the book.  Wow, one thinks, life does pass in a blink of an eye.  Egan said she’d always felt “tremendous excitement” when other authors used this point of view.  She was also inspired to try it after one afternoon at the library, where she was doing research for another book, about the Brooklyn Navy Yard in the 1940s. She was reading letters by a woman who had worked there, written to her new husband.  “Reading someone’s letters you’re just deeply inside someone’s mind,” she told me.

I thought, “Gosh, I wonder if she’s still alive?”  So I went over to the computer…and I sat down and Googled her, and within a second I was reading her obituary. It was so eerie to be sitting there, reading these letters by a woman who didn’t even have children yet, didn’t know what her life would be, full of hopes and plans, and then to read the end, in this kind of cool, news-writing voice.  And then I went on, reading her letters, but I had this terrible sense of knowing the end when she didn’t know it.  And I think that also interested me. I was interested in how the present feels when you keep pulling someone out of it.

covercoverThis notion of being pulled out of the present reminded me immediately of internet culture, and the ways in which we require constant connection with the world, even as it yanks from us direct, unmediated experience.  (Nowadays, for instance, you can’t go to a concert without someone in front of you taking photos of the band, probably to post on Facebook later that night–maybe you are that someone?)  Like Don DeLillo before her, Egan explores the role and power of technology in our lives, but from a more humanistic, character-driven perspective.  In Look At Me, fashion model Charlotte, whose face and career are ruined after a car accident, becomes a character-of-herself on a website called Ordinary People, a fictional progenitor of Facebook and Twitter.  In The Keep, Danny drags a satellite dish to a Eastern European castle because he must be able to call everyone he knows back in New York City; otherwise, he might be forgotten.   In her latest book, Egan imagines a future world where the young tell stories in a narrative genre more befitting their era (“Great Rock and Roll Pauses”–the aforementioned PowerPoint chapter), and where toddlers use hand-held devices with such dexterity that they become the most  important and sought-after consumers.

In his review of A Visit from the Goon Squad in the Washington Post, Ron Charles wrote that the this world was “corroded by technology.”  I asked Egan if that was the description she would use.  “I don’t think so,” she said.  “I have concerns about technology—I think we all do—but I’m mostly just interested in it.  As a user, I’m less interested in it as I am as a writer.  The fetishization of connection itself is something that really fascinates me.  Connection in itself essentially means you’re opening yourself up to whatever people want from you.  All the time.”

She doesn’t see her vision of the future as a dystopian one, and despite the warnings and concerns in the book, the humanity of her characters persists.  It’s telling that these chapters set in the future are so poignant.  People can still feel, even if those feelings must be texted: if thr r childrn, thr mst b a fUtr, rt?

This is where Egan’s genius lies.  She engages with philosophical questions and is formally daring, and yet, and yet!, her work is emotionally moving, the stories and characters always compelling.  In his review of The Keep, Madison Smartt Bell said that Egan, “deploys most of the arsenal developed by the metafiction writers of the 1960’s and refined by more recent authors like William T. Vollmann and David Foster Wallace — but she can’t exactly be counted as one of them.”   His reason?  Her “…unusually vivid and convincing realism. Egan sustains an awareness that the text is being manipulated by its author, while at the same time delivering character and story with perfect and passionate conviction.”   Perhaps this is what makes Egan a darling among critics and a bestseller.

I asked Egan about her approach to storytelling.  How important, I wondered, was emotional engagement?

Without the emotional resonance and some sense of an interesting story, you got nothin’. Really. All the formal experimentation in the world will get you nowhere without that…Ideally, the formal experimentation should not be something you’re imposing on the material but it should grow out of the story you’re telling. And if it doesn’t, the question is, why are you doing it?

The people and what they do and how it feels to the reader are the beginning and the end.   I really feel that.  Unfortunately, there seems to be an idea that you have to choose one or the other [experimentation or readability]. I don’t quite understand where that came from. If you look at the history of literature, it doesn’t bear out that dichotomy at all.

As time has gone on, I have become interested in telling stories that are more complicated and less streamlined, and so I’m looking for more ways to do that as efficiently and powerfully as I can.

covercoverEgan is currently reading 19th-century novels like David Copperfield.  She recently read Middlemarch and was “electrified” by the narrative voice. She’s excited by how unconventional these older novels are. “I feel like everyone has amnesia,” she said. “Or maybe we read these books too young and all we remember are the stories and not how they’re told.”   She grinned.  “But I just love these intervening, busy body, first person-third person 19th century narrators. I feel like I need to think about that for my next book.”

Did she just say, next bookomg. woot.

I can’t wait to read it, Jenny.





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5 Responses to “Novelist-of-the-Future: A Profile of Jennifer Egan”

  1. Rohan Maitzen
    at 8:46 am on July 12, 2010

    “She’s excited by how unconventional these older novels are.”

    Yes, when she talked about wanting a narrative with multiple interweaving plots and points of view, I immediately wondered why she wasn’t mentioning that the multiplot novel was a staple of the 19th century. Another great example, also with the kind of “busybody” narrator she likes, is Thackeray’s Vanity Fair; my piece on VF in this month’s Open Letters might be of interest to her! I agree that people today often seem to underestimate the experimental quality of Victorian fiction–but usually only if they haven’t actually read much of it.

  2. Justin
    at 10:38 am on July 12, 2010

    I just read this book and thought it was great. It was the first time I’ve read Egan and I’m looking forward to delving into her other works.

  3. Indoor Camping
    at 2:34 pm on July 13, 2010

    People have negative views of Victorian fiction due to the antiquated activities such as embroidery and buggy rides, and embarrassing emphasis on the importance of women marrying: that sort of thing. Just about everything else is rich, thick and glorious and completely amazing, and she’s got even more of my respect by mentioning especially these two examples.

  4. Shelley
    at 6:12 pm on July 20, 2010

    I’ve wondered several times if Jennifer Egan happens to be the wife of Timothy Egan, who wrote a fabulous non-fiction book on the same topic that my (with, yes, interweaving plot lines) fictional work is about?

    Sounds like Dickens would like Egan’s book.

  5. Fiction Writers Review » Blog Archive » A Visit from the Good Squad by Jennifer Egan
    at 1:07 am on September 19, 2010

    […] Review Daily blog; and in Guernica–and here’s a profile of the author by Edan Lepucki at The Millions. Bonus: Here’s a Rumpus interview that brings PowerPoint savvy into the […]

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