Time's a Goon
It was as though words simply poured out of her, the way they might when she puts pen to paper. Sentences seemed to tumble out of her mouth fully formed in a fashion that I don't always expect of writers. Writing and speaking are different mediums, after all.
My first encounter with Jennifer Egan was at the New Yorker Festival this past October, when she was featured in a fiction panel along with Michael Chabon and New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman. I knew she had bagged the Pulitzer in 2011 for her most recent novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, and I had flipped past her short stories in the New Yorker, but I hadn't yet read a word of her work.
Writing is a solitary activity. There's something intriguing about watching an author speak; it's like seeing the man behind the curtain. You’re faced with the only visual representation of the work that you’ve read, and you can’t help but wonder how that one person created all those very real, fully formed characters. You imagine the author at work: staring at a computer screen, scribbling and crossing out words in a notebook, even hammering away at a typewriter if they’re so inclined.
That night, I jotted down the following quote as Egan spoke:
"I just think the novel is such a hungry, greedy form—it can absorb anything."
Sounds a bit like throwing paint at a blank canvas, but Egan is nothing if not precise, even at her most experimental. Now before I go on, a quick disclaimer: A Visit from the Goon Squad was probably the first contemporary fiction book I've read in its entirety in some time; being in journalism school can muddy your desk with reams of only non-fiction, especially if you don't make the time to seek out other literature. As one might expect of a journalist, I love non-fiction, but I’m most drawn to the pieces that employ fiction techniques. And so, somewhere between discovering the Pocket app and getting lost in the Strand, I found my way back.
As you’ll read in many a review, A Visit from the Goon Squad is more a string of vignettes than it is a traditional, linear novel. I wondered where the story was going until about halfway through the book, when I realized I was looking at it all wrong. This wasn't a book with an ending. Egan has in fact said that she was inspired by the lateral storytelling of TV shows—specifically, she said, famed HBO series The Sopranos—and the novel actually started off as disparate short stories, some of which were published in the New Yorker years prior.
That’s exactly what sets this work apart. Egan moves seamlessly from one character to another between chapters, switching from first person to third person, and tweaking time and place to transport you to the relative future or past based on the narrative she’s telling. The book opens with kleptomaniac Sasha sprawled across the couch of her therapist’s office in New York, relaying the tale of a recent first date; the second chapter jumps a couple years back to the mid-life crisis of record executive Bennie, Sasha’s former boss of 12 years; the following chapter turns back the clock many decades to 1979, during the punk rock era in San Francisco, and is written through the eyes of Rhea, one of Bennie’s high school friends. At some point in the book, you'll likely start guessing which peripheral character Egan will tackle next.
She was immensely praised for one of the book's later chapters, which was written purely as a PowerPoint presentation, but that's not the only time Egan steps away from conventional tropes: another chapter midway through is written as a profile of a Lohan-esque starlet. That's where you begin to understand Egan's point about the power of the novel, and the way in which fiction can be innovative—how something that seems like a gimmick can turn out to be poignant and powerful when executed properly. I was particularly drawn in by how she alternated between narrative modes: it takes great skill to make third person intimate, to stay as close to your characters as when you're using "I" and are writing from inside their heads.
More recently, Egan wrote a piece called "Black Box" for the New Yorker's science fiction issue that was tweeted line by line, for one hour each night, over a period of ten days. Set in the 2030s, it tells the story of Lulu, a female spy on a mission—a character whom Egan actually first introduced in A Visit from the Goon Squad—and the 140-character "dispatches" are actually her thoughts as recorded by a memory chip. That might sound a bit ludicrous, and perhaps it is, but I thought this story served to further highlight Egan's greatest skills: the ability to say something universal in just one line, to make an observation that's far bigger than it seems at first read, to make every word count.
A few days after her Pulitzer win, Egan optioned the rights to A Visit from the Goon Squad, and it was slated to hit the small screen under the HBO banner. Last February, the Wall Street Journal reported that the project had been shelved. I couldn't be happier. The characters will live on in the pages of the book.
The book's title comes from the quote "Time's a goon", uttered by one of Egan's characters.