Jennifer Egan

by Heidi Julavits


Photo by Pieter M. Van Hattem / Vistalux.

Listen to an audio excerpt from this interview:

Egan-excerpt

In early 2003 I lived on the same street as Jennifer Egan, and, knowing her not really at all, but admiring her a lot, I’d mailed my second book to her house, praying she’d feel some vague neighborliness toward me and donate, to my sorry cause, a blurb. A writer always suspects (because it is true) that she is deeply inconveniencing, even temporarily ruining, the life of another writer when she asks for a blurb. To my mortification, I learned that the writer of whom I’d requested this favor had just given birth to a baby.

A few days later I ran into Egan with her just-home-from-the-hospital baby. Before I could offer congratulations, she blurted out, “I’m so sorry I haven’t had a chance to read your book yet!”

Egan’s niceness isn’t the crucial take-away from this anecdote, at least if you’re trying to meaningfully connect Jenny Egan the Person with Jennifer Egan the Writer. The take-away should be this: both Egans are unceasingly and penetratingly curious about the headspaces of others.

To call this impulse empathy, however, is to shear it of its prickly intellectual component. Egan is a super-thinky writer in quasi-disguise, a writer who alchemizes Big Ideas into works of emotional intensity and architectural intricacy, the result being sneaky books you can recommend to those friends and relatives who demand “recognizable” characters and thumping storylines, but whom you hope might find tantalizing, beneath these vibrant entertainments, the buzzing circuitry of Egan’s mighty brain.

While beginning her career as an ambivalent realist—with her first collection of stories, Emerald City, and her first novel, The Invisible Circus—Egan started breeding her realist ambitions with more postmodern ones. The first result of this textual test-tubery was Look at Me, a semi-satirical critique of the cultural obsession with image and beauty explored through the parallel narratives of two females named Charlotte—one a model in Manhattan, one a teenager in Illinois—unknowingly connected via a man named Z. The Keep, a spooky gothic-inspired castle novel built from multiple levels of storytelling and fictionality, was that much more “out” as a novel with more than the usual realist aims.

But I must admit that, adore these earlier Egan books though I did, nothing quite prepared me for the degree of flat-out-flooredness I’d experience (this floor was in a Mexican hotel room) while reading her latest book, A Visit from the Goon Squad. Goon Squad defies the who-when-where-why perimeters of jacket copy so completely that any attempt at summation will prove a laughable stab. However. The book follows a group of interconnected characters. Possibly Sasha, a touchingly troubled soul, and her boss, Bennie Salazar, a famous music producer, reside at the center of the plot vortex (but this statement is highly debatable). Each chapter is told from a different character’s POV, though each one “recurs” (earlier or later in the book) as a supporting cast member. The book zooms around in time, but defies linearity so completely that I stopped envisioning time as the proverbial arrow on which I dutifully hopped pointward or tailward. In Goon Squad, time is deep, and Egan the literary equivalent of a paleoclimatologist drilling through layers of ice. Each chapter is like an ice core sample and the book, thus, functions more on an ice core timeline, better understood vertically than horizontally. It establishes, without question, that she is one of the most significant living practitioners of the art we call fiction.

While Egan tends not to write directly from personal experience, a chapter in Goon Squad takes place in San Francisco, her hometown, around the time when Egan herself was in high school, and, depending on who you believe, hanging out with a punk-loving music crowd much like the one described in her book.

Heidi Julavits So, my spies informed me that you were a “real” punk in high school.

Jennifer Egan I was not a punk in high school. (Ahem, who are these spies?) Except for blonder hair and no wrinkles, I have never looked much different than I do now. I did go to concerts at the Mabuhay Gardens, but always as a wannabe observer. The good news is I didn’t end up shooting heroin with communal needles, as many punks did in the late ’70s, just before AIDS was discovered.

HJ Given how different your early work is from your more recent work, are there anxieties you had when you first started writing that no longer preoccupy you? Do you have new anxieties now?

JE My biggest concern at the beginning was just being understood in a way that, looking back, seems very neurotic. I literally felt as if no one would understand what I was saying, even though I was writing a totally conventional novel. As usual, I had certain theoretical questions I wanted to explore in my first novel: I was interested in how the new mass media interacted with the ’60s counterculture and heightened its intensity, and also in the “out of body” nature of media coverage and the way that might dovetail with a basic human longing for transcendence. I probably hammered those points a little too hard out of a fear of being misunderstood. I was kind of crazy about literary theory in college, I spent way too much time reading texts about texts. More and more I feel you’d better not try and say anything too clearly or too loudly in fiction, because you end up eliminating the mystery that’s at the heart of any great literary experience. I’m also more aware of how I seem to work purely instinctively. For all of my theorizing about culture and the intellectual girding that I hope is in my books, I don’t think a lot about the actual act of writing or the way I’m going to do it. So there’s this possible overtheorizing in terms of intent but a total lack of theorizing about method.

HJ But it also seems as if you’re trying to expose or question method, especially in “Safari,” a chapter from A Visit from the Goon Squad that I first read in The New Yorker. A term Zadie Smith used in her awesome essay “Two Paths for the Novel” is “not naïve.” There’s something extremely “not naïve” about “Safari.” It features this really overbearing narrator, as if to say without saying, “Look, people, at how lopsided the power dynamic can be in these third-person omniscient so-called realist stories!” Tragically your characters are captives, not of past acts and experiences—from which they could still arguably recover—but of future ones. These flash-forwards are so much more chilling, almost like death sentences—in some cases, that’s literally what they are.

JE I feel like you understand the story better than I do.

HJ (laughter)

JE The principles guiding me in terms of method might seem kind of obvious. With Look at Me, which is more experimental than my first novel, I remember thinking, I’m really tired of the way pages of text look. I wanted mine to look different. I had this feeling of not liking to read a book where you turn these pages and they all look the same. The biggest thing that guides me is a basic attempt to move away from anything that feels familiar.

HJ Meaning anything that’s too close to your personal experience?

JE If I’ve read it or done it before, then I’m not interested. My aesthetic, or my method, is basically guided by curiosity and desire. Again, there’s nothing very sophisticated about that. There’s no theory there. And I don’t know what the novel should be, but I do know that—well, I was a National Book Award judge last year, and I read some great stuff. But I also found myself thinking that a lot of novels feel really constrained and unaware of the possibilities at hand. I find that curious, because the novel began as this explosion of craziness. I mean, look at Cervantes and Sterne. Two of the first novelists. There’s nothing holding them back. They haven’t learned to be afraid to do anything. You do need to be in control, and, in a way, the more chances you’re taking the more you need to control them. But now I feel like the control is coming before the chances. For example, this idea that you can’t change the point of view. What? Why? If you can make it work, you can do anything.

HJ In the past you’ve written books that were clearly short story collections or clearly novels. How do you categorize Goon Squad, genre-wise, in terms of your own past work? Did you start writing it with a category in mind or did that kind of categorizing never influence your thinking?

JE If I had been telling myself I was writing a novel I couldn’t have done a damn thing. I would have had to just stop because I knew this did not meet even my own definitions of what a novel is, in terms of providing some kind of centrality. I wanted to avoid centrality. I wanted polyphony. I wanted a lateral feeling, not a forward feeling. My ground rules were: every piece has to be very different, from a different point of view. I actually tried to break that rule later; if you make a rule then you also should break it!

HJ How did you try to break it?

JE I tried to write a second piece from Sasha’s point of view. But it was a nonstarter, even though I worked on it for months and months. I tried, but it was just so loathsomely familiar. So anyway, every piece would have a different point of view, but, in addition, every piece had to be a different world and have a different feel from all of the others. I imagined the book was sort of like those art projects you do as kids when the teacher makes you put a grid over a drawing and every person in the class is responsible for a little square, you match them all together and then, Oh my God! It’s the same drawing. But in my mind, the way to do it was more of a Chuck Close painting, in that every small square was its own individual work, and yet they all added up to something bigger. I often actually have a visual idea of what I’m trying to do, which is odd because I’m not visual. I’m really a horrific draftswoman. But I conceived Look at Me as a figure eight. The vanishing point, the middle point that’s both a presence and an absence, is this character Z, who has disappeared from one world of the novel and appeared in another, and whose past is a blank. He connects these two worlds. I wasn’t wondering how that book fit into the tradition of the novel. It was more like, I’m just making my figure eight here.

HJ The Chuck Close analogy is very fitting.

JE Another one of my rules was that each piece had to stand on its own and be at the highest level, individually. Each one had to fulfill its own intentions completely, but also—ideally—in a surprising way. And then the idea was that the explosive combination of all these separate sounding units would be very powerful. But I was perfectly prepared for it to be mediocre.

HJ Did you write the pieces in the order in which they appear in the book?

JE No, not at all. In fact, four of them were written years and years ago. They were just written as stories, and published, all four. “You (Plural),” “Good-bye, My Love,” “Forty-Minute Lunch” . . .

HJ I love “Forty-Minute Lunch.” It’s written as an article by one of your characters, but it’s so raw, so revealing of its author. And so hilarious.

JE And what’s the fourth? Oh! “X’s and O’s.” I had no sense that they linked up at all. And then I started working on “Found Objects,” and it all kind of followed from there in a strange way because I wasn’t even planning to work on this book. I was trying to work on my goddamn Brooklyn Navy Yard book, which I still haven’t started.

HJ You wrote a book to avoid writing a book.

JE The Navy Yard idea happened during a fellowship I had at the New York Public Library. I’ve wanted for long time to write about New York in the late ’40s, that moment when we as a country felt the seismic shift in our global power and status. I got interested in the fact that thousands of women worked at the Navy Yard during World War II, often doing traditionally male jobs like welding and pipe fitting. Anyhow, the research itself took on a life of its own. I became immersed in the letters that a woman named Lucille Kolkin wrote to her husband while she worked at the Navy Yard during the war. Then I met and got to know Lucy’s present-day family (she died in 1997), including her widower—the man she’d been writing to! Eventually the Navy Yard partnered with the Brooklyn Historical Society, and I’ve been working with an oral historian there, too, interviewing subjects. And then I got interested in the divers who repaired ships, and attended an Army divers’ reunion in Virginia, where I actually got dressed in one of those 200-pound suits they used to wear, with the lead boots you get the idea.

HJ So maybe Goon Squad could be seen as showcasing a similar chain reaction of curiosity—but you were “researching” fictional people.

JE I initially got curious about Bennie Salazar, one of the other protagonists in Goon Squad, because he was briefly mentioned in the first story as Sasha’s weird boss who sprinkles gold flakes in his coffee and sprays pesticide in his armpits. Having written that basically as a laugh line, I thought, Why would a person do those things? So then I wrote “The Gold Cure,” basically exploring the answers to that question. The next piece I wrote was “A to B” because in “The Gold Cure,” Bennie is recently divorced, and I got curious about his marriage, and why it ended, and who Stephanie, his wife, was. Before I started “A to B,” for some reason I had decided that Stephanie’s brother was my “Forty-Minute Lunch” narrator. Why did I decide that? I don’t know.

HJ It strikes me as a relevant form of interconnectivity, since it mimics how our curiosity fires these days. It’s like Googling, where you’re on one site and a marginal mention catches your interest, say a mention of Bennie Salazar, so you plug him in and boom, you fork off to this dedicated Bennie Salazar space.

JE I was also thinking of The Sopranos, which I was crazy about. I loved the polyphonic quality of that show, and the way peripheral characters would become central characters. I was always curious about the decision-making around that, and the idea that, obviously, we’re all peripheral to other people and central to ourselves. But my initial structuring idea, which didn’t pan out at all, was that the book was going to go backward in time. I had an order in my mind, but when I read it through, it didn’t work at all. Anyway, early on there was this linking up of “Forty-Minute Lunch” with “A to B.” I loved importing that character, Jules Jones (an unstable, unhappy celebrity reporter who ends up attacking the starlet he’s supposed to be profiling) and revisiting him after he’s released from prison. And then I found myself having this weird sensation, as if the stories were putting out tendrils and attaching to each other. One of the great moments, for me, was realizing Sasha, from “Found Objects,” was the same person as the protagonist of “Good-bye, My Love.” I couldn’t believe I had written two stories about women who steal wallets without realizing they were one person.

HJ And that that person was you. (laughter)

JE No, I’m the one that gets my wallet stolen. Finding the order was very tricky because I was looking for a system but no existing one could help me, which gets back to the question of why I don’t read theory any more. I don’t seem to do well with systems guiding me on those questions—my best guide is my own curiosity, and that’s what I ended up using. I thought, Okay, having just read this story, what’s the one that would be most satisfying to encounter next just based on these little tingling awarenesses of other people and other possible stories that might interest the reader?

HJ Let’s talk about how time functions in Goon Squad—I’m just going to call it a “book.” That’s a relatively uncontroversial genre classification, at least for the moment. Pretty soon I’ll have to call it your “ebook.”

JE My “text.”

HJ Quantum physics comes up in a footnote in “Forty-Minute Lunch,” which I found apt because while reading your “book” I thought a lot about the many-worlds theory. Every time I encountered your characters anew it wasn’t as though I was moving back and forth on a horizontal timeline, but rather I felt like I’d been transported to a parallel universe that was occurring simultaneously.

JE That’s cool.

HJ I felt like there was no time in your time. Time was eradicated.

JE I don’t experience time as linear. I experience it in layers that seem to coexist. I feel like 20 years ago was really recent even though I was much younger and had a different kind of life. Yet at the same time I feel like I’m still kind of there. One thing that facilitates that kind of time travel is music, which is why I think music ended up being such an important part of the book. Also, I was reading Proust. He tries, very successfully in some ways, to capture the sense of time passing, the quality of consciousness, and the ways to get around linearity, which is the weird scourge of writing prose. There is the sense that one thing has to come before and after another if you’re writing a sentence.

HJ Again, to cue that Zadie Smith essay, she writes that “realism’s obsession is convincing us that time has passed. It fills space with time.” What’s interesting about your book is that it fills space with time, but it also fills time with space. My husband was just in Marfa, Texas, and he’s been talking a lot about visiting the Chinati Foundation and the work of Donald Judd. He sent me photographs of this huge room with these big metal cubes in them. I experienced these temporal spaces in your book not as these gaps that were supposed to indicate that you didn’t know what happened, or that we weren’t supposed to know what happened rather I felt as if I was wandering around in this minimalist space with just cubes in it or something. I had to go in there and just hang out for a second.

JE It felt sort of like a chemistry experiment, as I said before. Here is a set of rules, that’s what I’m going to do. And we’ll put them all together and see what works. But my idea of going backward, as I mentioned, was a total bust.

HJ I’m curious why.

JE “Pure Language,” according to the rules I had set, had to be the first story, because it takes place in the future. And I was so miserable because I just knew that the story would be meaningless if you didn’t know who the people were. You can’t begin with a convergence and expect it to mean anything, because there’s nothing to converge, obviously. And then I had this lightning bolt moment when I realized: this is not the first story in the book. It’s the last story in the book. Once I knew that, I adapted my rules to account for it: time goes farther and farther backward, and then it leaps into the future. So when I had all my pieces, except for the PowerPoint piece, I sat down and read it and realized it was very flat.

HJ And you knew you needed a PowerPoint presentation!

JE I had known that for a year and a half, that I wanted to write a PowerPoint story, I just couldn’t do it. The impetus came from a sense that PowerPoint had become a true literary genre—I remember reading the summer before the last election that the Obama campaign’s turnaround had happened in response to a seminal PowerPoint presentation, and thinking, it wasn’t referred to as a “presentation” or a “memo,” or a “paper,” but a “PowerPoint presentation.” And if PowerPoint has become that basic a form of communication, then I have to write some fiction in it.

HJ I should probably admit that I was really dreading that story. I live in fear of the gimmicky story that fails to rise above its gimmick. And I didn’t want you to fail as so many before you have failed, myself included. But within a few pages I totally forgot about the PowerPoint presentation format, that’s how ungimmicky your gimmick was.

JE The PowerPoint piece was the last big change I made to the book after it was sold. By then, it was pretty settled. I had very few choices in terms of content, which in a way was really interesting. There weren’t that many avenues left to explore that wouldn’t have required introducing new major characters—and it was too late for that. So I didn’t have all that much room to move in.

HJ It’s liberating to be confined.

JE There’s this funny way, too, in which there’s a larger plan that you’re not consciously aware of. You’ve been participating in it, but you could say you created it without realizing it. And at some point you have to bow to that plan, which in this case meant finding the last little tunnel that I could explore without upsetting the balance of the book. The PowerPoint piece was a disappointment for a really long time; I’d never used PowerPoint, so I just pictured PowerPoint as slides with bullet points. My sister works at a global management consulting firm. She lives and breathes in PowerPoint. One of the templates in my PowerPoint story I stole from her, actually. But ultimately I realized that writing anything successful in PowerPoint requires that you break down a particular thought, or fictional moment, into its basic structure, and then illustrate that structure. I finally reached my true apotheosis as a PowerPointer when I began creating my own slide graphics out of shapes, rather than using templates. And I didn’t understand until I was in the middle of that piece that PowerPoint does offer an achronological option, for multiple chronologies.

HJ And multiple POVs. You get the polyphonic quality.

JE In that way it does pull the book together, actually, because it epitomizes in this really extreme way all of the principles I’d been working on. The biggest drag about PowerPoint is just making the graphics work. Just making something like that (points to a graphic) actually line up right—it’s a nightmare. That was my whole summer last summer: beautiful sunny days and me inside trying to make edges line up in PowerPoint. But the writing part, too, was really hard.

HJ The PowerPoint story is, nominally at least, about the most significant “pauses” in rock ‘n’ roll—meaning complete silences in the middle of songs. Are you one of those people with an encyclopedic knowledge of music?

JE Well, I acquired some knowledge of the industry to write this book. I’m no great aficionado, actually, of music.

HJ I guess writing with and about the knowledge of music isn’t the hard thing to do. The challenge as a fiction writer is communicating the emotional experience of listening to music. Were there any successful antecedents that you sourced?

JE I read High Fidelity years ago. I really enjoyed it, but I found myself thinking, I don’t really know this music. Nick Hornby and I don’t share a musical palette, and therefore, in a way, the heart of it was lost on me. Music figures hugely in Proust, and I think that was probably more my model. I’d known for a while that I wanted to write about the music industry. I had tried as a nonfiction writer, but I could not for the life of me get an assignment that brought me into the music industry (though I did get assigned once to write about a pair of identical twin rappers called Dyme). But to write “The Gold Cure” I actually had to do a lot of research just to understand the technology. I found this producer/mixer who literally spent hours on the telephone with me, laying things out. I didn’t even know the difference between analogue and digital recording.

HJ So if you’d been paid to write about the music industry for a magazine, would that have staunched your interest?

JE I probably would have still written this book because the time/music connection is so strong. And I’m always really interested in technology and how it changes culture. In a way there’s no better lens to look at that change than through the music industry. It’s not ever again going to be the way it was, or even close, and I felt very sad about that. Anyone who’s grown up listening to albums and then to CDs can’t help but feel sad about the atomization of music consumption. It would be like if we couldn’t publish a book anymore, only chapters. So, in a way, writing about it became my act of wistful homage in a twilight moment. Have you read the book You Are Not a Gadget?

HJ No.

JE You must.

HJ I did clock the guy’s awesomely hirsute author photo.

JE Yes, Jaron Lanier is very hirsute and he’s very awesome. He was a true believer in the power of the Internet and the bounteous possibilities that it held. But now he’s talking about how many of the people who were so ecstatic about the Internet are basically unemployed because of it. I think we’re in that moment where old stuff is dying and it’s not clear what’s going to replace it. Bennie Salazar talks about an aesthetic holocaust. I don’t think that. I’m hopeful about the iPad—both because it’ll give Amazon a run for its money and because it may begin to offer a solution to the problem of newspapers and magazines not being able to profit from online advertising.

HJ But not the Starfish, the “futuristic” handheld device designed for preverbal children you feature so prominently in “Pure Language.” I bet you’re not so hopeful about the Starfish.

JE You know, it’s not a bad idea.

HJ Maybe you’ll get a future cut of the profits. Speaking of preverbal children, I have a question to ask and I don’t really know how to ask it without me sounding like a loser for asking it, and making you sound like a loser for answering it.

JE (laughter)

HJ Is there some cognitive shift that’s come as a result of your having kids and subsequently having less time to write and think? Has caring for very needy beings had any positive effect on your brain? I thought of this question because I had this sensation when I read your book that the positive side of being sleep-deprived is you do feel like all your psychic boundaries have been eroded and you can coexist as all these different people you’ve been your whole life.

JE Initially I felt that there was a very negative impact. The book I was working on before I had my first kid was Look at Me, this huge undertaking. I had such a hard time holding it all in my mind. And then after I had kids, or even one kid, I thought, I’ll never be able to do that again. I just don’t have the room. And I don’t think I’ve achieved quite that conscious breadth of thought since having children. So I’m really surprised, honestly, when people are excited by A Visit from the Goon Squad. As I worked on it, I thought, Well this is kind of a lateral move, but I’m hoping I can get away with it and I’ll come up with something really good for the next one. But I’m wondering now if, in some way, I kept my sights narrow so that I didn’t feel overwhelmed by the task. I worked while also doing a lot of schlepping, and ordering from catalogues, and making of sandwiches. And talking about the work with my kids, because they’re really interested in it, “What happens with the lady who steals the wallet?”

HJ Kids have such an excellent sense of “What comes next?”

JE They’re very interested in results. Like, “So what happened?” Or in the case of my older son, “Who won?”

HJ Did you write any pieces for this book that didn’t make the final cut? Any pieces where nothing happened and no one won?

JE In four cases I worked for months on things that were just dead on arrival. One was about Bosco, the overweight, terminally ill former rock star in “A to B,” as a young guy. I really wanted to write about Bosco when he was a still a rock star. Hopeless. Another was about Ted, Sasha’s uncle in “Goodbye My Love,” and his wife, Susan. I was so curious about her. But nope. Still, I like mentioning them to honor them a little bit. Another failed story was about Sasha in college, from her point of view. The fourth was Rolph, the little boy in “Safari” who we learn will later commit suicide as a grown-up.

HJ I like that he existed as Future Rolph and then he existed as people remembering him after he was dead. There’s a blank circle protecting whatever pain he went through. It’s the fictional equivalent of a great rock ‘n’ roll pause.

JE In “A to B,” Stephanie says, “I feel like everything is ending.” And her brother Jules says, “You’re right, everything is ending but not yet.” My friend David Rosenstock said about that piece, “I feel like this whole story is about that not yet.” That really stuck in my mind. This whole book is about that not yet, what happens in that not yet. So that’s a pause. And the great rock ’n’ roll pauses idea, interestingly, comes from one of the failed stories, which was an earlier PowerPoint attempt, which I was trying to write without actually owning PowerPoint. I feel like what I don’t do well is the top-down thinking that I used to embrace: this is what I’m trying to do, this is how I’m going to do it. Now I have a more inductive method, which seems to suit my slightly frazzled existence.

A big part of the struggle is having confidence and feeling a sense of momentum about one’s own projects. I tend to think that if the kids need something I have to deal with that; I will drop what I’m doing to help them. When you’re in that state of mind it’s hard to believe that you could do anything much. I guess what I’m saying is I think that I’ve had more worries about what I could do than real hindrances on what I can do. The worry is that feeling so pressured in terms of time and choices makes it harder to have the sort of desultory meandering curiosity and flights of fancy that might lead to the riskier, difficult stuff. That would be the fear.

HJ I would say that’s a fear that hasn’t really panned out, given the excellently risky nature of your post-kid work.

JE But that was the worry.

HJ Could we call it anxiety? To loop us back to the beginning? Begin with anxiety, end with anxiety.

JE Maybe what’s really changed with having kids is the way I think I think, rather than the way I actually think.

 

—Heidi Julavits is the author of three novels, most recently The Uses of Enchantment. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a founding co-editor of The Believer.

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BOMB 112
Summer 2010
The cover of BOMB 112
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