Jennifer Egan Does Avant-Garde Fiction — Old School
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."
A Visit From The Goon Squad Read An Excerpt
By Jennifer Egan
Hardcover, 288 pages
List price: $25.95
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."
Jennifer Egan Reads From 'A Visit From The Goon Squad'
A Visit From The Goon Squad
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Excerpt: 'A Visit From The Goon Squad'
A Visit From The Goon Squad
By Jennifer Egan
Hardcover, 288 pages
List price: $25.95
LANGUAGE ADVISORY: This excerpt contains language some might find offensive.
Chapter 1: Found Objects
It began the usual way, in the bathroom of the Lassimo Hotel. Sasha was adjusting her yellow eye shadow in the mirror when she noticed a bag on the floor beside the sink that must have belonged to the woman whose peeing she could faintly hear through the vaultlike door of a toilet stall. Inside the rim of the bag, barely visible, was a wallet made of pale green leather. It was easy for Sasha to recognize, looking back, that the peeing woman's blind trust had provoked her: We live in a city where people will steal the hair off your head if you give them half a chance, but you leave your stuff lying in plain sight and expect it to be waiting for you when you come back? It made her want to teach the woman a lesson. But this wish only camouflaged the deeper feeling Sasha always had: that at, tender wallet, offering itself to her hand-it seemed so dull, so life-as-usual to just leave it there rather than seize the moment, accept the challenge, take the leap, fly the coop, throw caution to the wind, live dangerously ("I get it," Coz, her therapist, said), and take the fucking thing.
"You mean steal it."
He was trying to get Sasha to use that word, which was harder to avoid in the case of a wallet than with a lot of the things she'd lifted over the past year, when her condition (as Coz referred to it) had begun to accelerate: five sets of keys, fourteen pairs of sunglasses, a child's striped scarf, binoculars, a cheese grater, a pocketknife, twenty-eight bars of soap, and eighty-five pens, ranging from cheap ballpoints she'd used to sign debit-card slips to the aubergine Visconti that cost two hundred sixty dollars online, which she'd lifted from her former boss's lawyer during a contracts meeting. Sasha no longer took anything from stores-their cold, inert goods didn't tempt her. Only from people.
"Okay," she said. "Steal it."
Sasha and Coz had dubbed that feeling she got the "personal challenge," as in: taking the wallet was a way for Sasha to assert her toughness, her individuality. What they needed to do was switch things around in her head so that the challenge became not taking the wallet but leaving it. That would be the cure, although Coz never used words like "cure." He wore funky sweaters and let her call him Coz, but he was old school inscrutable, to the point where Sasha couldn't tell if he was gay or straight, if he'd written famous books, or if (as she sometimes suspected) he was one of those escaped cons who impersonate surgeons and wind
up leaving their operating tools inside people's skulls. Of course, these questions could have been resolved on Google in less than a minute, but they were useful questions (according to Coz), and so far, Sasha had resisted.
The couch where she lay in his office was blue leather and very soft. Coz liked the couch, he'd told her, because it relieved them both of the burden of eye contact. "You don't like eye contact?" Sasha had asked. It seemed like a weird thing for a therapist to admit.
"I find it tiring," he'd said. "This way, we can both look where we want."
"Where will you look?"
He smiled. "You can see my options."
"Where do you usually look? When people are on the couch."
"Around the room," Coz said. "At the ceiling. Into space."
"Do you ever sleep?"
Sasha usually looked at the window, which faced the street, and tonight, as she continued her story, was rippled with rain. She'd glimpsed the wallet, tender and overripe as a peach. She'd plucked it from the woman's bag and slipped it into her own small handbag, which she'd zipped shut before the sound of peeing had stopped. She'd flicked open the bathroom door and floated back through the lobby to the bar. She and the wallet's owner had never seen each other.
Prewallet, Sasha had been in the grip of a dire evening: lame date (yet another) brooding behind dark bangs, sometimes glancing at the flat-screen TV, where a Jets game seemed to interest him more than Sasha's admittedly overhandled tales of Bennie Salazar, her old boss, who was famous for founding the Sow's Ear record label and who also (Sasha happened to know) sprinkled gold flakes into his coffee-as an aphrodisiac, she suspected-and sprayed pesticide in his armpits.
Postwallet, however, the scene tingled with mirthful possibility. Sasha felt the waiters eyeing her as she sidled back to the table holding her handbag with its secret weight. She sat down and took a sip of her Melon Madness Martini and cocked her head at Alex. She smiled her yes/no smile. "Hello," she said.
The yes/no smile was amazingly effective.
"You're happy," Alex said.
"I'm always happy," Sasha said. "Sometimes I just forget."
Alex had paid the bill while she was in the bathroom-clear proof that he'd been on the verge of aborting their date. Now he studied her. "You feel like going somewhere else?"
They stood. Alex wore black cords and a white button-up shirt. He was a legal secretary. On e-mail he'd been fanciful, almost goofy, but in person he seemed simultaneously anxious and bored. She could tell that he was in excellent shape, not from going to the gym but from being young enough that his body was still imprinted with whatever sports he'd played in high school and college. Sasha, who was thirty-five, had passed that point. Still, not even Coz knew her real age. The closest anyone had come to guessing it was thirty-one, and most put her in her twenties. She worked out daily and avoided the sun. Her online profiles all listed her as twenty-eight.
As she followed Alex from the bar, she couldn't resist unzipping her purse and touching the fat green wallet just for a second, for the contraction it made her feel around her heart.
"You're aware of how the theft makes you feel," Coz said. "To the point where you remind yourself of it to improve your mood. But do you think about how it makes the other person feel?"
Sasha tipped back her head to look at him. She made a point of doing this now and then, just to remind Coz that she wasn't an idiot-she knew the question had a right answer. She and Coz were collaborators, writing a story whose end had already been determined: she would get well. She would stop stealing from people and start caring again about the things that had once guided her: music; the network of friends she'd made when she first came to New York; a set of goals she'd scrawled on a big sheet of newsprint and taped to the walls of her early apartments:
Find a band to manage
Understand the news
Practice the harp
"I don't think about the people," Sasha said.
"But it isn't that you lack empathy," Coz said. "We know that, because of the plumber."
Sasha sighed. She'd told Coz the plumber story about a month ago, and he'd found a way to bring it up at almost every session since. The plumber was an old man, sent by Sasha's landlord to investigate a leak in the apartment below hers. He'd appeared in Sasha's doorway, tufts of gray on his head, and within a minute-boom-he'd hit the floor and crawled under her bathtub like an animal fumbling its way into a familiar hole. The fingers he'd groped toward the bolts behind the tub were grimed to cigar stubs, and reaching made his sweatshirt hike up, exposing a soft white back. Sasha turned away, stricken by the old man's abasement, anxious to leave for her temp job, except that the plumber was talking to her, asking about the length and frequency of her showers. "I never use it," she told him curtly. "I shower at the gym." He nodded without acknowledging her rudeness, apparently used to it. Sasha's nose began to prickle; she shut her eyes and pushed hard on both temples.
Opening her eyes, she saw the plumber's tool belt lying on the floor at her feet. It had a beautiful screwdriver in it, the orange translucent handle gleaming like a lollipop in its worn leather loop, the silvery shaft sculpted, sparkling. Sasha felt herself contract around the object in a single yawn of appetite; she needed to hold the screwdriver, just for a minute. She bent her knees and plucked it noiselessly from the belt. Not a bangle jangled; her bony hands were spastic at most things, but she was good at this-made for it, she often thought, in the first drifty moments after lifting something. And once the screwdriver was in her hand, she felt instant relief from the pain of having an old soft-backed man snuffling under her tub, and then something more than relief: a blessed indifference, as if the very idea of feeling pain over such a thing were baffling.
"And what about after he'd gone?" Coz had asked when Sasha told him the story. "How did the screwdriver look to you then?"
There was a pause. "Normal," she said.
"Really. Not special anymore?"
"Like any screwdriver."
Sasha had heard Coz shift behind her and felt something happen in the room: the screwdriver, which she'd placed on the table (recently supplemented with a second table) where she kept the things she'd lifted, and which she'd barely looked at since, seemed to hang in the air of Coz's office. It floated between them: a symbol.
"And how did you feel?" Coz asked quietly. "About having taken it from the plumber you pitied?"
How did she feel? How did she feel? There was a right answer, of course. At times Sasha had to fight the urge to lie simply as a way of depriving Coz of it.
"Bad," she said. "Okay? I felt bad. Shit, I'm bankrupting myself to pay for you-obviously I get that this isn't a great way to live."
More than once, Coz had tried to connect the plumber to Sasha's father, who had disappeared when she was six. She was careful not to indulge this line of thinking. "I don't remember him," she told Coz. "I have nothing to say." She did this for Coz's protection and her own- they were writing a story of redemption, of fresh beginnings and second chances. But in that direction lay only sorrow.
Sasha and Alex crossed the lobby of the Lassimo Hotel in the direction of the street. Sasha hugged her purse to her shoulder, the warm ball of wallet snuggled in her armpit. As they passed the angular budded branches by the big glass doors to the street, a woman zigzagged into their path. "Wait," she said. "You haven't seen-I'm desperate."
Sasha felt a twang of terror. It was the woman whose wallet she'd taken-she knew this instantly, although the person before her had nothing in common with the blithe, raven-haired wallet owner she'd pictured. This woman had vulnerable brown eyes and flat pointy shoes that clicked too loudly on the marble floor. There was plenty of gray in her frizzy brown hair.
Sasha took Alex's arm, trying to steer him through the doors. She felt his pulse of surprise at her touch, but he stayed put. "Have we seen what?" he said.
"Someone stole my wallet. My ID is gone, and I have to catch a plane tomorrow morning. I'm just desperate!" She stared beseechingly at both of them. It was the sort of frank need that New Yorkers quickly learn how to hide, and Sasha recoiled. It had never occurred to her that the woman was from out of town.
"Have you called the police?" Alex asked.
"The concierge said he would call. But I'm also wondering-could it have fallen out somewhere?" She looked helplessly at the marble floor around their feet. Sasha relaxed slightly. This woman was the type who annoyed people without meaning to; apology shadowed her movements even now, as she followed Alex to the concierge's desk. Sasha trailed behind.
"Is someone helping this person?" she heard Alex ask.
The concierge was young and spiky haired. "We've called the police," he said defensively.
Alex turned to the woman. "Where did this happen?"
"In the ladies' room. I think."
"Who else was there?"
"It was empty?"
"There might have been someone, but I didn't see her."
Alex swung around to Sasha. "You were just in the bathroom," he said. "Did you see anyone?"
"No," she managed to say. She had Xanax in her purse, but she couldn't open her purse. Even with it zipped, she feared that the wallet would blurt into view in some way that she couldn't control, unleashing a cascade of horrors: arrest, shame, poverty, death.
Alex turned to the concierge. "How come I'm asking these questions instead of you?" he said. "Someone just got robbed in your hotel. Don't you have, like, security?"
The words "robbed" and "security" managed to pierce the soothing backbeat that pumped through not just the Lassimo but every hotel like it in New York City. There was a mild ripple of interest from the lobby.
"I've called security," the concierge said, adjusting his neck. "I'll call them again."
Sasha glanced at Alex. He was angry, and the anger made him recognizable in a way that an hour of aimless chatter (mostly hers, it was true) had not: he was new to New York. He came from someplace smaller. He had a thing or two to prove about how people should treat one another.
Two security guys showed up, the same on TV and in life: beefy guys whose scrupulous politeness was somehow linked to their willingness to crack skulls. They dispersed to search the bar. Sasha wished feverishly that she'd left the wallet there, as if this were an impulse she'd barely resisted.
"I'll check the bathroom," she told Alex, and forced herself to walk slowly around the elevator bank. The bathroom was empty. Sasha opened her purse, took out the wallet, unearthed her vial of Xanax, and popped one between her teeth. They worked faster if you chewed them. As the caustic taste flooded her mouth, she scanned the room, trying to decide where to ditch the wallet: In the stall? Under the sink? The decision paralyzed her. She had to do this right, to emerge unscathed, and if she could, if she did-she had a frenzied sense of making a promise to Coz.
The bathroom door opened, and the woman walked in. Her frantic eyes met Sasha's in the bathroom mirror: narrow, green, equally frantic. There was a pause, during which Sasha felt that she was being confronted; the woman knew, had known all along. Sasha handed her the wallet. She saw, from the woman's stunned expression, that she was wrong.
Excerpted from A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. Copyright 2010 by Jennifer Egan. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House Inc.