Interview: Jennifer Egan
Last week, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. This week, she was longlisted for the Orange Prize. These were part of a wave of critical and popular acclaim for Egan’s book, which was a bestseller and topped ‘must-read’ lists in the US last year.
The excitement about Goon Squad – a chapter of which was excerpted in Granta 110: Sex – has to do with the way it manages to be an ambitious social novel, a structural experiment and a page-turner all at once. Egan answered some questions for Granta’s Yuka Igarashi about this exceptional book.
YI: Congratulations on your National Book Critics Circle Award. NBCC called A Visit from the Goon Squad ‘at once experimental in form and crystal clear in the overlapping stories it delivers’. Do you consider your book experimental?
JE: I didn’t think of it that way as I was working on it; I’m someone who doesn’t necessarily lunge to read ‘experimental’ work, because for me that word tends to connote abstraction, even a kind of severity, rather than a reading experience that might be fun. At the same time, I was aware while working on Goon Squad that it wasn’t quite like anything I had read before, and that was one of the things that excited me. I was telling a complicated, polyphonic story, and the best way to tell it turned out to be this oddly structured book. But it wasn’t an experiment so much as a response to the need to find a way to embody the oddly shaped story I wanted to tell.
The book is narrated by a wide array of interrelated characters over several decades. I’m curious about how you conceived of and created this structure. Did you see the whole novel at once? Did you write the chapters in order?
‘I was telling a complicated, polyphonic story, and the best way to tell it turned out to be this oddly structured book.’ Well, I didn’t even see it as a novel, exactly, but more as a series of lateral ‘moves’ in which a peripheral character that has hopefully provoked curiosity at an earlier point is revealed to have a complex, even tumultuous inner life. It evolved pretty organically, and I didn't have a clear sense of the whole until close to the end. For a long time I imagined that the book would simply move backwards, because the early chapters were unfolding that way, but the plan was complicated, first, by the emergence of chapters that took place in the future, and, second, by my horrified discovery, when I read the book through in a backwards order, that the result was lumbering and flat. It was at that point that I realized I needed to let go of linear chronology entirely, and that backwards was still linear. The order of the chapters was one of the last things to fall into place, and really hinged on my asking myself, ‘Having just read X, what will the reader be most surprised – yet satisfied – to encounter next?’
The ‘goon’ in your title is time. One character says to another: ‘Time’s a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?’ In your book at least, the answer is yes – time beats all of your characters to a pulp. Do you think time ever makes people wiser or better?
I think it makes people wiser and better in this very book. I’d say that Bennie and Sasha – the two main characters – both emerge wiser and (certainly in Sasha’s case, since she seems not to be stealing from people anymore) in better shape than at many other times when we’ve encountered them. Scotty lands on top, despite his quasi-derelict years, and even Bosco, who first utters the ‘goon’ line as part of his explanation for why he wants to commit suicide publicly, winds up recovering from cancer and owning a dairy farm. So the prognosis isn’t all bad! In real life, I think the passage of time gives us the revelation of perspective: understanding that the present is fleeting and not eternal. That is big wisdom of a sort.
One chapter in your book is written as a series of PowerPoint slides. It’s narrated by Alison, a girl growing up sometime in the near future. Are all teenage diaries going to be written on PowerPoint soon?
Let’s hope not! For me, having a kid write in PowerPoint was a way of getting around the corporate feel of the programme, which I’d struggled with when I tried to use it to write a different chapter. The truth is that writing in PowerPoint is really hard, so my guess is that kids will hew to more conventional forms of recording their thoughts. It’s just plain easier – and faster – to do it that way.
This book is filled with music – not just musicians, but fans, producers, rock critics, and publicists. What has your relationship with music been like?
Less intense than people tend to assume from Goon Squad. I’m really not a music-head, but I certainly defined myself musically when I was a teenager (I especially loved The Who, the Sex Pistols and Iggy Pop). Since then, my relationship with music has been more peripheral; I don’t generally listen to it as I work (except on this book), I don’t go to concerts. I think music is actually most important to me when I go running. I wear an iPod, and the combination of running and music seems to loosen up a lot of ideas in my head, and I find that I have valuable insights into my fiction at those times. I’ve also had a longstanding curiosity about the music industry, which I wasn’t able to satisfy as a journalist because there were other excellent journalists who had that area covered. So I guess by writing Goon Squad, I finally gave myself a reason to do some research into the music industry! ■
Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad was released in the UK by Corsair this week.
Home page photo by Pieter M. Van Hattem/Vistalux
Top photo by Marion Ettlinger
Granta 114: Aliens is now on sale. Buy it here.
‘The Gold Cure’, a chapter from Jennifer Egan’s novel, was published in Granta 110: Sex. To read it, you can buy the issue here.