By:  William Johnson
Photo: Heather Gregg

Recently we asked Mary readers to name their top literary divas – commanding female writers whose temple we gladly worship. It was not shocking that Jennifer Egan’s name came up over and over again. Jennifer Egan is an awe-inspiring voice because she effortlessly manages to be so many things at once: A realist, a humanist, a writer who astutely tackles big postmodern themes, and a voice that is simultaneously tightly composed and evocative. As one of my friends more succinctly remarked, “Baby, Miss Egan is everything.”

In her new book, A Visit From the Goon Squad, Egan uses an assorted series of finely rendered, linked literary portraits to examine such issues as the randomness of fate and time, how new technologies both support and deter they ways we communicate, and the both inspiring and heartbreaking ways we grapple with our past. The structure of the book is just as multilayered as the themes it covers: A minor character in one section of the book becomes the lead point of view in a later section; while a slightly remarked upon experience in one story becomes a full-blown, detailed narrative in another section. No character, or moment, is directly examined more than once. Each story provides a slight touchstone for another, with the narrative often taking vast forward leaps in time. It’s as if each story provides a small door or hyperlink to a standalone anecdote that will soon precede it.

The novel never comes off as a showy postmodern exercise – because at its core the characters are always filled with an overwhelming amount of grace and humanity. It’s a thrilling, exciting, tightrope-walking piece of fiction that theoretically should not work, but does in execution.

In addition to her novels, Look at Me, The Keep, and The Invisible Circus, Egan is a noted journalist who has written for The New York Times, The New Yorker, and GQ.

Egan met with Mary to talk bout her new book, how being an archeologist isn’t some Indiana Jones adventure, and the fascinating aspects of being a gay teen on the Internet.

When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

I think I always loved to write. When I was younger, I did not think of myself as any great shakes as a writer. At first I wanted to be a doctor. I was really obsessed with anatomy and biology. I was a kid who wanted to dig up graves and look at bodies. I used to horrify my grandmother. When we walked by the old cemetery in Rockford, Illinois, I’d say, “Can we just dig up one?” I was really interested in what bones and decay looked like. My grandfather was an orthopedic surgeon, and I would go through all his medical books—I was especially interested in physiological aberrations. Eventually, I moved away from that, and I wanted to be an archeologist. I took a year off between high school and college. One thing I did during that year was to pay to go on a little dig – in Kampsville, Illinois – where I learned that archeology was kind of boring (laughs). I had pictured unearthing all these wonderful urns and pots. Of course, it’s about a scalpel and a square meter of earth, and tiny shards. All my romantic notions ended in that moment. Then I worked in a coffee shop. I earned some money and traveled around Europe with a Eurail pass. While I was there, I started having these awful panic attacks. It was my confused teen phase. My parents were divorcing. I had taken a lot of drugs – I was very worried that I had basically destroyed my brain because of my drug-taking. Amidst this scary time – being alone at 18 – not knowing anyone, feeling like my brain was failing me: I realized that writing was my calling. Not to be overdramatic (laughs).

What kind of stuff were you writing initially?

I loved writing academic essays in college. Even now, I think that journalism, and writing book reviews, sort of satisfies that left brain – or is it right brain – I can never remember which is which – part of me. That kind of systematic researching side. I had friends who were really stand-out writers, but I don’t think anyone would have called me that. I was generally not very noticeable as a kid. I was the kind of kid who was pretty invisible and creeping around the edges. I was uncertain about everything I did. In Europe, alone, feeling that I was facing the abyss – looking back, of course, that was not true – I confronted some basic facts about myself that I hadn’t previously understood. One of them was writing was what I wanted to do. I have to say my conviction of that has never wavered—not once. Even though I am not terribly confident, and I don’t always think I’m good, and I’m not always told I am.

I’ve had plenty of absolute disasters in terms of writing horrible stuff and not getting encouragement. I just happen to be one of those people who says, “Fuck you! I’m going to do better” (laughs). I get discouraged, but it doesn’t stop me. I think one of the big questions about people is: What happens when you get discouraged? Do you stop? Or do you just push forward? I think people end up doing “the thing” they push forward in – despite discouragement, because anything you do will invite discouragement at some time or another. It’s how you push through it that determines the outcome.

Now, after all the accolades – do you feel like you are finely an accomplished writer?

I feel like I’ve done fine, but I want to do much better. If you look at what’s been done over many years and centuries, it’s hard to feel over confident. The real challenge is to keep getting better and to keep pushing. And try to do something that is really extraordinary. I can’t say I’ve done that yet, but I am really trying hard.

Do you feel that good writers are born? Or is something that you can work at? I’m just remembering an old Truman Capote quote where he basically said, “You can’t teach anyone to be a good writer.”

I don’t know. I didn’t get a MFA, and I haven’t taught that much. I’m teaching at NYU right now, but it’s the first time in 10 years. I think school can certainly help people get rid of their bad habits or at least helps them identify them. I find it very hard to predict what people are capable of. People make these huge, weird leaps. That is what I said to my students at NYU, “I am hoping you all make that leap.” It’s not even something they can control. It just happens. I’m a believer in hard work and determination. It’s not everything, but it does seem like hard work can make you [produce] more and stay in there longer to really hone your skills. There is a real, qualitative aspect to hard work – I think it can actually make you better. We’ll never know, but I tend to believe that dedication to craft will make you a superior writer, more than “innate talent,” whatever that really is. Maybe it’s what we call hard work in retrospect!

In A Visit from  the Goon Squad you really break away from traditional narrative devices and narrative structures. Was this something you intentionally set out to do when you began this book?

I didn’t think much about it. I would say that my last two books have been pretty untraditional – in terms of how they unfolded. Truthfully, I didn’t think I was writing a book when I started writing A Visit to the Goon Squad. I started off writing the “Found Objects” chapter when I was supposed to be writing this other novel – which I still have not started. When I wrote “Found Objects.” I thought, “I’ll just do this for fun, to loosen up.” I was led by curiosity. There’s a mention of Bennie Salazar in “Found Objects” as a guy who eats gold and uses pesticides as deodorant. It was just a laugh line, but after I finished that piece, I found myself thinking about Bennie: “Who is he? Why is he doing that odd stuff? What was it like when he and Sasha worked together?” And suddenly I was writing the “Gold Cure,” and as I was working on that chapter, there was a mention of Bennie trying to make it in the suburbs and feeling really out of place, and how his wife really had gone in another direction and become this great doubles player at their country club. That led to the chapter “A to B.” I kept getting lured deeper and deeper in, and then the stories began to creep their way into other work that I written recently – that I initially thought were standalone pieces like “Selling the General.” I  had also written “Forty Minute Lunch” some years before. While I was writing “A to B,” I thought, “Okay Stephanie’s brother was the guy who tried to rape the movie star.” Then I realized the movie star he was trying to rape is the same one who appears in the “Forty Minute Lunch.”

I found that [all these connections being drawn] was really something that was happening around me and almost a little beyond me. If you could picture it graphically it would have been a lot like different tentacles tunneling towards one another and then braiding together – a little bit outside of my control. Now, mind you, I did have a bunch of stories that did not work. [Scenes] I wanted to visit, but could not bring to life. There were stories that failed – that were not included.

[While writing] I didn’t think, “Oh, you are breaking the rules of conventional narrative.” I did have a fear that people would think, “Oh, this is just a story collection.” But in the end, I couldn’t worry too much about that. I’m more of an intuitive, gut-driven writer. I don’t stand back and see what I’m doing until I’ve already written a bulk of it. I’m not able to write anything with real conviction if I get too analytical. I thought, “This may not be the right move, but I’m having fun, so I’ll take it.”

Did you have any editorial pressure to make this book more conventional? Did anyone want you to insert one major event to tie all the characters together in way that was not so ambiguous?

No, thank God. I have to hand it to my agent. I showed her this diverse bunch of stuff and I thought, “She is going to be pissed.” I thought she would say, “This kind of high-concept. What are you doing?” She didn’t. She was really interested in it, and she suggested I keep going.

I should mention there were two clear inspirations for Goon Squad. One was Proust’s In Search for Lost Time – which I read to the end over the last few years. I realized early on that my book was about time, and that time was really the subject. The second inspiration was The Sopranos which I was really crazy about. I loved the idea of a polyphonic piece, minus Tony Soprano, because in a way, I was watching the show for everyone else’s stories as much as Tony’s. One of the things I loved about The Sopranos was seeing what minor character was suddenly going to come into relief. I loved the idea of being able to make those decisions.

There are so many characters, most with only very tenuous connections. As I was reading it, I was wondering if you actually “story-boarded” this novel like one might do a multi-character script.

No, I didn’t. With this one, I had a few basic rules. Every piece had to be completely different from all of the others. No point of view more then once. Every voice had to be very distinct. Every unit had to completely stand on its own, and ideally be pretty excellent on its own terms, and have its own individual style, and yet when fused together hopefully create a kind of explosion of excellence (laughs).

So you can take out any of the units and they can stand on their own? One has been published in The New Yorker correct?

Three actually. Most of the units have been published elsewhere, but honestly that really is just me trying to make some money (laughs). I hate to say it (laughs). And the only one that might not work on its own is the PowerPoint chapter – maybe?

The title of the book is taken from a phrase a character mentions: Time is a goon? Is that a phrase you made up? I Googled it, and I could not find a reference to that phrase anywhere.

I made it up.

Well, do you believe that time is a goon?

Sure, time is a big goon (laughs). It beats us up. You look in the mirror and you are like, “What happened to me?” It’s a goon!

The novel also deals with characters dealing with people and events from their past. Some characters track down old friends via Facebook. Have you connected with people from your past through social-networking sites?

It’s never been easier to confront people from one’s past—that is one of the things I examine in the book. As a culture, I think we’re in a state of high excitement over the prospect of reconnection. I’ve certainly been in touch with people who I never thought I would hear from again, even people who I didn’t have a particularly good relationship to begin with. Now that I’m in my 40s , I think about the past a lot more then I used to. I think one becomes – I don’t think it is nostalgia exactly – amazed to feel that time really is passing: “This is adulthood. I am a grownup. I will get old.” All these things that seemed absolutely outside the realm of possibility are now quite literally the case.

We want to reconnect with the past, go back to places we remember, and by listening to music, of course – music is the great transporter. Listening to music from different moments of your life truly does make all the time melt away – briefly. But then the song ends, and here you are.

Is that why music is also the one of the recurring themes in the book?

I didn’t think about it in that way initially, but I’m sure that is partly why. I’ve always been interested in the music industry. I kept trying to get journalistic assignments related to music. The closest I got was following a pair of identical twins rappers called Dyme. In Goon Squad, the group Stop-Go is loosely based on Dyme. But Dyme was fantastic. When I was reporting on them, the whole point was to follow the process of their record coming out. Then there was a moment when I realized that it was not happening. These poor women. They thought their album was coming out, and they’d signed contracts, but nothing was really happening. That was 10 years ago. The music industry was already starting to have major problems, but now I think it is 50 times worst.

I think music being a theme in the book is a product of several things: 1) My own frustration at not having really penetrated that world. 2) Music’s relationship to time, because thinking about one’s own youth is usually about thinking about one’s old music. 3) I am always interested in technology as a marker of cultural change and as a portal to change in our inner lives. Looking at the music industry, which has been so decimated by digital technology, seemed like a good way of keeping that technology element as an intrinsic part of the story.

What are you listening to right now?

Right now, I am actually listening to a group that I didn’t know about when I was writing this last book – the Kings of Convenience. They’re a really quiet group, which is unusual for me. I think they’re Norwegian. I’m crazy about their songs.

I’m working on my website now – which needs to be more tech savvy for a book like this. On the site, I mention what songs I was thinking of when I writing each story. When I was writing different parts of Goon Squad, I listened to different stuff. When I was writing “Ask Me if I Care,” I plunged back into S.F. punk music from the late ’70s. When I wrote “Out of Body,” and the scenes that take place in the early ’90s of New York, I was thinking of bands like Curve – bands I was really listening to during that period. During the scenes that took place in the late ’90s, I was thinking of songs by people like Björk. Different songs really help me cultivate a scene. I mean, there is no way I could be listening to S.F. punk, while writing about New York in the ’90s. It just would not work for me.

In your novel Look at Me, you have this character named Oscar who is a gay friend to the female protagonist, Charlotte. Initially I was worried. Oscar could have easily fallen into the clichéd, sassy, black gay friend archetype, but you gave Oscar an inner life and humanity that sidesteps that trap. What was the impetus behind that character?

I love that character. I did know a guy named Oscar, who was black and gay in the ’80s, but I did not know him well. I think the basic profile may have come from my brief interactions with Oscar, but honestly, I never really know. I don’t use people I know very much in my stories. To pick a name, or a couple of biological details—that’s already more than I usually do. I truly make these people up.

In Look at Me, there were a lot of characters that pained me, because of my inability to spend more time with them. Oscar was a perfect example of that. Oscar actually deserves to be delved into more. Oscar deserves his own book, but the organizing principle of Look at Me was loose ends. Let them be loose. Let these people resonant in their own ways – that’s enough. You don’t have to answer every question. In a way, the Goon Squad is the same kind of idea, although I indulged my desire to burrow deeper inside certain people’s lives. He does have moments in Look at Me, but not his own in-depth story, because Look at Me was a “novel.” I had to adhere to some type of centrality.

With Goon Squad, I ripped that centrality to pieces and instead of having everything from [one or two characters’] point of view it was more of a cacophony. If he was in the Goon Squad, Oscar would have had a story from his point of view. He would not be so unknown. But, really in the end, I guess, everyone is unknown (laughs).

Well, a lot of the characters’ fates in Goon Squad are left open-ended. There was really no one scene where everyone pops up and gives the reader a recap on how it all turns for them.

The desire for convention is so huge. We all want convention. We want the unity, but I just knew:  one step too far in that direction and it becomes horrible. It becomes cliché. The final concert at the end is about how close as it gets to any kind of convergence.

There is kind of a brutality in just letting your characters go – I felt this way with Oscar in Look at Me. It’s hard. It’s not nice to the reader, but you get something – a greater gain – in exchange for that difficulty. I feel sad when I think of Oscar. I miss him. I feel like I want to do something more with him. I’m really glad you liked his portrayal. I loved the way he talked. He had such a great way with language.

I have been talking now and again with Stanley Crouch – I am not sure how you feel about his work – he is such a big character. I love his big spirit – which is irresistible. He talks about the cowardice of literature to cross racial lines, and he credits television with being much bolder. I really felt kind of implicated when he said that. I mean, I have done that in little ways with Oscar, but really he is not that major a character. The fear is: “You did it wrong! How dare you?” I want to resist that even more than I already have. I want everyone to resist it. So make mistakes. Do it wrong. Get slapped. Be told you did it wrong, and then do it better. How can we create an integrated world that in any way matches the world around us if all we can write about is people like us? That is a huge problem for me, because I don’t like writing about people like me. I do think there is a timidity in fiction around crossing those lines, and less in other mediums. I want to go even further with that idea, and I don’t know what that the results will be. Stanley has argued strongly on that point, and I think smartly.

Speaking of crossing lines, how did end up writing an article about gay youth on the Internet for The New York Times?

That was in 2000. For me, what was great about that article is that I finally figured out how the Internet worked. I was online, of course, but I didn’t understand the depth of the change that it was reaping. The impetus was that there was an incident where a boy, a young boy in New Jersey, had met a man online, and the boy was murdered. It became this infamous national story. The boy’s parents had no idea the boy was gay. He was like 11, and it’s really a horrible story. So the question was: Are a lot of kids doing this?

The Internet functioned very differently back then. In a way, it was much easier to write that article back then than it would be now. There were no social-networking sites yet. Everyone was using online bulletin boards. I went to a few gay youth bulletin boards and identified myself as [Jennifer Egan, Journalist]. I said what I wanted to talk about, and lots of teens emailed me. I don’t know how you would do it now:  how would you find these kids? Now, everyone is connected in other ways. I think it’s kind of boring – these very corporate, social-networking sites instead of these quirky, interesting points of convergence the Web used to be composed of – but anyway (laughs), that is beside the point. Initially, when I started the story, I felt it wasn’t working out. I had all these kids that I was communicating with, but I hadn’t met any of them. I kept thinking that if we hadn’t physically met, then I hadn’t really interviewed them.  Then it all snapped into place and became interesting to me. I’ve always been interested in secret lives – Look At Me is very much about that, and the way people are fragmented. The [article] became an investigation of the ways that people live out different aspects of themselves online, and in different forms of media. These were kids who routinely described their online lives as their real lives—where they could be themselves—and their home lives and school lives as basically their fake lives. That was freaky on a technological level, and yet it was a sign of things to come. That particular story was probably one reason I ended up writing The Keep. It was so fascinating to see that kind of reversal of “real” and “unreal”. But what was most interesting was finally visiting [the main gay teen interviewed for the piece]. I really don’t know what has happened to him.

Really? You don’t know where he is?

I have lost track of him. He was an amazing person, and I know he will do really interesting things [with his life]. I hope he resurfaces.

That was a powerful story to work on. In a way, it was about being gay, but metaphorically it was about all the things we discover about ourselves when we’re teenagers that we don’t share with our parents and the world around us, and the strange way that technology calls into question what is real and what’s not.

…And really the power of technology to reshape the fabric of our lives.

There was this terrible paradox:  the kids’ “real” lives were impossible to verify. It was so tragic, really – back to the Greek idea of tragedy. These poor kids who are finally in milieu where they feel comfortable turn out to be dealing with creepy people who are not who they say they are. But yet out of all of this, there were some real relationships forged. And also some basic teenage dramas were played out. I mean [the main gay teen interviewed for the piece] was not dealing with a fake person, but ultimately dealing with a guy who betrayed him and then his crazy reaction to that. I mean hacking into the guy’s e-mail – it was all so intense. I was uncomfortable with the things that he was doing. But I also could see that this was the medium where the relationship was forged and now that they were mad at each other, and breaking up, the Internet was where it was all going to play itself out.

Knowing what you know about the Internet are you going to let your children get on the Web?

Not yet. They have had very little experience on it. My kids would say I am mean and horrible and that I don’t give them enough of what they need. I am very wary of “screen life.” I think it comes to kids too early. Our kids don’t watch TV, because we don’t really. We just got Wii and it causes more problems in our household than you can imagine (laughs). My biggest fear of depriving them of technology is not that they‘ll be ill-equipped for the future, because in the end everyone gets it all, but more that they’ll fetishize it – which tends to happen if you really starve someone of something. I don’t want to create that problem. On the other hand, they are very imaginative kids. They make up lots of things on their own, and I don’t want to squelch that by giving them all access to the Internet. Basically, I want to hold back on the Internet until they get older, because I know it will hit them like a tidal at a certain point anyway. I want their imaginative powers to be well-developed by that time. I’m not against [technology]. I just think imagination, concentration, the ability to focus clearly and give one’s self entirely to one activity is important – and the Internet can make that difficult. I really believe in imagination, focus, and concentration. I don’t think any creative endeavors will be possible without those things.

Do you have any far-reaching takeaways you hope the readers gleam from A Visit From  the Goon Squad?

I never really have those, so I am going to make up a couple (laughs) on the spot. From a writing standpoint, I want writers to realize you can do whatever you want as long as you pull it off. It goes back to what we were saying, “Let’s forgot the rules and just have fun.” The labels of novels, and stories, and all that, are useful only insofar as they are used to promote creativity. When [those labels] begin to stymie creativity they’re no longer useful. I mentioned before that I have just started teaching; my students often ask, “Am I allowed to do this or that?” My answer is “Absolutely. If you can pull it off, you’re allowed.” I hope people will feel when they read this book: “Cool, this is sort of a genre-less work. Maybe we don’t need to worry about genres so much anymore.”

As far as another message, I think one thing that I have really come to realize as I’ve gotten older is that the unexpected – more often than not – is what happens. Proust captures this so perfectly. The prostitute becomes an aristocrat. The aristocrat goes broke. Things change. You can fight it, but there is no way around it. I think I feel that in a sort of joyful way about this book. I find it heartening to know that. That we really cannot predict what will happen. Who could’ve have believed that Obama would have won, or that he would pass health care, or, on the flipside, that 9/11 happened? We’re constantly overrun with information, but it’s still pretty hard to make accurate predictions from it. It’s very strange. The fact that we don’t know what is coming next is both beautiful and brutal. I tried to capture that is this book.

To buy A Visit From the Goon Squad click here.

To visit Jennifer Egan’s website click here.

(A special thanks goes out to Frank Miles for the much needed intellectual support  -William)

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[...] Here are some recent interviews with Egan–at Mary: A Literary Quarterly; on Hits Daily Double; on NPR’s The Takeaway; on NPR’s Morning Edition; from the Paris [...]

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