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Jennifer Egan Does Avant-Garde Fiction — Old School

Jennifer Egan freely admits that her book A Visit from the Goon Squad defies categorization — and that doesn't bother her in the least. You can call it linked short stories; you can call it a novel — just don't call it experimental.

"When I hear that something is experimental, I tend to think that means the experiment will drown out the story," Egan says.

Not to say that Egan doesn't like to experiment — Goon Squad is composed of a series of stories with the arc of a novel in which each story is a chapter. But since Egan was determined that each story be able to stand on its own, they're told from different points of view, imbued with different moods and written in different styles.

"I was led by my own curiosity," Egan says. "I wrote about one person's intimate life and then would spot someone else from the corner of my eye whose intimate life I wanted to crack open and reveal to the reader."

In one chapter, Egan uses a PowerPoint presentation — that infamous program used by speakers to illustrate their talking points — to illustrate the journal of a 12-year-old girl, using visuals to tell the story of her family. It may seem like a gimmick, but in Egan's hands a much-maligned technological tool becomes a moving storytelling device.

"PowerPoint has become such a ubiquitous form of discourse," Egan says. "It seemed inevitable that I would try to do it. I had never used it myself ... so the first time I tried writing a chapter in PowerPoint, I was trying to do it by hand on legal pad ... and as you can imagine, that was really a nonstarter."

The Facebook Effect

Egan begins the novel with the story of Sasha, a young kleptomaniac who gives in to temptation and steals someone's wallet in the ladies' room while on a forgettable first date. Sasha and her boss, Bennie, a record producer and former punk rock musician, are what connect the book's many characters to one another. Egan says she liked the idea of showing how Sasha and Bennie's lives "entangled" with one another — and with other people — over time.

Her goal, Egan explains, was "to give the reader some of those startling experiences of time passing that I think we all have in our own lives, especially after we hit 40 ... where suddenly people look really different and big things have happened to them."

Caught at seemingly random moments in their lives, it's as if Egan's characters are time traveling as they move through the stories — sometimes as protagonists, sometimes playing a minor part, and sometimes fading into the background altogether. Bennie first appears in middle age then returns as a teenager in a story that focuses on the kids he hung out with as an adolescent. When Sasha makes her last appearance in the book, she is little more than a distant memory to the man who was her date that first fateful night.

Jennie Yabroff, who writes about culture for Newsweek magazine, says A Visit from the Goon Squad has the feel of a Charles Dickens novel.

"It's Dickensian in the breadth of its cast," Yabroff says. "It has so many characters and so many different aspects of society and so many different voices."

But it's still a novel that is very much of this era. It's about music and the music industry and the way digitization has changed things. And, Yabroff says, it may be the first novel ever whose structure is reminiscent of the experience of browsing Facebook.

"You spend a lot of time on maybe a friend's page on Facebook," Yabroff says. "And then you'll see someone post something on their wall — so then you'll follow that link to that person's page, and the person who was your friend's friend becomes the new protagonist. It's this very fragmented experience where you are sort of jumping around and there is no central consciousness."

Back To Good Old-Fashioned Basics

And while Egan may delight in playing with form, she says there actually is a philosophy behind it all.

"If you don't have people that the reader cares about and stories that are gripping, you've got nothing," she says.

Egan is fascinated by the way technology is changing the world, but she is equally tied to the past. She says that in Goon Squad — which is structured like an old-fashioned record album, with a side A and a side B — she was influenced by an unlikely combination of The Sopranos and Marcel Proust.

Egan says she's inspired more by good old-fashioned novels written back when writers weren't afraid to test the boundaries of their genre than any post-modern theories of writing.

"If you read novels of the 19th century, they're pretty experimental," Egan says. "They take lots of chances; they seem to break a lot of rules. You've got omniscient narrators lecturing at times to the reader in first person. If you go back to the earliest novels, this is happening to a wild extent, like Tristram Shandy or Don Quixote — these are crazy books."

According to Egan, the novel is a flexible and sturdy form, capable of withstanding the changes and challenges brought on by new technology. As a writer, she says she aims to hold on to the best of the past while having fun with the best of what's new.

But when it comes right down to it, Egan is nothing if not a traditionalist.

"If having a story that's compelling — [that makes] you want to know what will happen — is traditional, then ultimately I am a traditionalist," she says. "That is what readers care about. It's what I care about as a reader. Now if I can have that along with a strong girding of ideas and some kind of exciting technical forays — then that is just the jackpot."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jennifer Egan Reads From 'A Visit From The Goon Squad'

Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.
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