DON GONYEA, host:
In her new book, "A Visit from the Goon Squad," writer Jennifer Egan takes readers on a swirling ride through time, as she explores how its passage changes and surprises her characters. Egan plays with time just as she plays with the genre of the novel, a form that is being shaped and reshaped by new technology. But Egan says she's not trying to create a new genre, she just likes finding new ways to tell a good story.
NPR's Lynn Neary reports.
LYNN NEARY: Jennifer Egan freely admits that her book defies categorization, and that doesn't much bother her. Call it linked short stories. Call it a novel. But don't call it experimental.
Ms. JENNIFER EGAN (Author, "A Visit from the Goon Squad"): When I hear that something is experimental, I tend to think that that means that the experimentation will drown out the story.
NEARY: That's not to say Egan doesn't like to experiment. She has written a series of stories with the arc of a novel. Each story is a chapter. But Egan was also determined that each story could stand on its own. Each is told from different point of view, imbued by a different mood and written in a different style.
Ms. EGAN: What I was led by was my own curiosity, as 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.
NEARY: One chapter is a PowerPoint presentation, that corporate computer program used by speakers to illustrate their talking points. Egan turns the PowerPoint into the journal of a 12-year-old girl, who uses the 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.
Ms. EGAN: Since I wanted to try to encompass as many moods and styles and technical possibilities as I possibly could, and because PowerPoint really has become such a ubiquitous form of discourse, it seemed inevitable that I would try to do it.
Now, I had never used it myself. I mean I'm a writer, what do I need PowerPoint for? So the first time I tried writing a story - or a chapter in PowerPoint, I was trying to do it by hand, which is the way I write on legal pads. And as you can imagine, that was really a nonstarter.
NEARY: Egan begins the novel with the story of Sasha, a young woman with a compulsive habit of stealing. While on a forgettable first date, she gives into the temptation to take someone else's wallet during a brief stop in a ladies' room. Sasha and her boss, Bennie, a record producer who was once a punk rock musician in San Francisco, are the links to all the other characters and their stories.
Ms. EGAN: I loved the idea of trying to show the way that their lives entangle with each other and with other people over time, and to give the reader some of those kind of startling experiences of time passing that I think we all have in our own lives, especially after we hit 40 or so, where suddenly people look really different, big things have happened to them, sometimes since you last saw them. I really wanted to capture the nature of those experiences, using these two people that we become pretty involved with rather quickly.
NEARY: Egan catches her characters at seemingly random moments in their lives, it's as if they're time traveling as they move through the stories - sometimes as main characters, sometimes playing a minor part or 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 back then. When Sasha makes her last appearance in the book, she's little more than a distant memory to the man who was her date that first fateful night.
Ms. EGAN: The only impressions Alex retained of their date involved winter, darkness and something about a wallet, of all things. But had it been lost, found, stolen, the girl's wallet is or his own? The answers were maddeningly absent. It was like trying to remember a song that you knew made you feel a certain way without a title, artist, or even a few bars to bring it back.
NEARY: Jennie Yabroff, who writes about culture for Newsweek magazine, says "A Visit from the Goon Squad" has the feel of a novel by Charles Dickens.
Ms. JENNIE YABROFF (Writer, "Newsweek"): It's Dickensian in the breadth of its cast. It has so many characters and so many different aspects of society and so many different voices.
NEARY: But this is a novel very much of this era. It's about music and the music industry, and the way digitization has affected that industry. And, Yabroff says, it may be the first novel ever that's structured like a Facebook page.
Ms. YABROFF: You spend a lot of time on maybe a friend's page on Facebook. And then you'll see, you know, someone post something on their wall, so then you follow that link to that person's page, and the person who was your friend's friend becomes a new protagonist. And it's this very fragmented experience where you're sort of jumping around and there is no central consciousness.
NEARY: Egan may delight in playing with form, but she never forgets one thing.
Ms. EGAN: If you don't have people that the reader cares about and stories that are gripping, you've got nothing.
NEARY: Egan is fascinated by the way technology is changing the world, but she is equally tied to the past. While writing this book, Egan says, she was influenced by both "The Sopranos" and Marcel Proust.
She says the novel is actually structured like an old-fashioned record album, with a side A and a side B. And she's inspired, not so much by any post-Modern theories of writing, as by good old-fashioned novels written back when writers were not afraid to test the boundaries of their genre.
Ms. EGAN: Because if you read novels of the 19th century, they're pretty "experimental," in quotes, as we think of it now. 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. And if you go to - back to the earliest novels, this is happening to a wild extent, like, you know, "Tristram Shandy" or "Don Quixote" - these are crazy books.
NEARY: When it comes right down to it, Egan says, she is nothing if not a traditionalist.
Ms. EGAN: If having a story that's compelling and that you want to know what will happen in, is traditional, then ultimately I am a total traditionalist, because 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, you know, that's just the jackpot.
NEARY: The novel, says Egan, is a flexible and sturdy form, capable of withstanding the changes and challenges brought on by new technology. As a writer, Egan wants to hold on to the best of the past while having fun with the best of what's new.
Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
GONYEA: You can experience one of Jennifer Egan's stories for yourself on our website at npr.org.
This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Don Gonyea.
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And I'm Renee Montagne.
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