Jennifer Egan’s new book, A Visit from the Goon Squad, covers a lot of ground, from San Francisco to Kenya and beyond, and a wide span of time, from the seventies punk scene to a near future where even the most intimate conversations (“Nvr met my dad. Dyd b4 I ws brn”) are conducted via text. We caught up with her, appropriately enough, over e-mail.Several chapters of the book started out as short stories. When did you first know that they would come together to form a novel?
I’m not sure there was a moment when I exactly knew, but the whole writing process seemed to be about thinking I would write just one more piece about this constellation of people. But then my curiosity would hook onto someone else, and I’d find myself following them along a byway to a different place. The critical moment came when I realized that four older stories, which I’d written and published some years before, were also entangled with this new material. I felt the whole thing weaving itself around me at that point, and realized it was time to admit I was writing a book, figure out what kind of book it was, and how the hell to make it work.
You’ve said that you were a literary-theory nut in college. Does that influence the way you start working on a book?
I think literary theory satisfied a deep love I have for big, encompassing narratives about the world and how it works—which are usually, in the end, more creative visions unto themselves than illuminating explanations. That theory-lust still guides me as a fiction writer. There’s usually a theory or two hidden (possibly not well enough) in my books, although the irony is that in almost every case my fictional explorations disproved the theory I had going in! For example, I began Look At Me with a theory that image culture had irrevocably changed identity and private life, and I emerged feeling that people are stronger and more complicated than that, and that privacy is finally inviolable. With The Keep, I began with a theory about pitting the isolated disconnection of the gothic realm against present-day hyperconnectedness. I emerged feeling that the gothic genre is all about hyperconnectedness—the possibility of disembodied communication—and that we now live in a kind of permanently gothic state.
I also think my lit crit years probably have something to do with my interest in playing with form. Simply maintaining the illusion of conventional fiction doesn’t really interest me; since it’s all artifice to begin with, I like to play with that dimension, if possible.
You were once a reader at The Paris Review. Did you learn anything from going through all those manuscripts?
I learned how many writers there were out there, and it was terrifying! But I also learned not to take the process too seriously. I figured that if I, a nobody in an un-airconditioned East Village apartment (batches of manuscripts were sent to me there), had the power to reject the slush pile, I couldn’t worry too much when my own stuff was rejected. It may have made me more resilient . . . and it definitely spurred me to submit to lots and lots of places at once, and not be so precious about it.
One chapter of A Visit from the Goon Squad is a PowerPoint presentation. Do you think you could hold your own against a full-time corporate PowerPointer?
Well, not to brag, but I do think I’ve gotten pretty adept on PowerPoint . . . except that I can’t figure out how to use Excel! My sister, a consultant, actually made the graphs in the chapter for me because I couldn’t seem to crunch the numbers competently. So I’m not expecting calls from corporate headhunters. I did read a lot of corporate PowerPoint presentations to get me into the mood, and I found them fascinating in the way everything becomes fascinating when it starts bending in the direction of fiction. The apotheosis of my PowerPoint experience came when I created the color version of the chapter for my website. I spent hours calibrating the hues, trying to intimate times of day, particular characters, the changing light. It was really a thrill, I can’t lie! Maybe I can hire myself out as a consultant to fiction writers seeking to use PowerPoint.
I loved the line, “How can anyone say ‘the girl with freckles’ when her hair is green?” I don’t imagine you were that girl, but did you empathize with the punks hanging around Mabuhay Gardens?
In some ways I was a lot like Rhea; I wanted desperately to be “real,” without really knowing what that meant. A cosmology existed in my mind: some people were real, and had intense, vivid lives, and some—like me—did not and might never. I was ashamed of my unreality, and I tried to conceal it from those around me. Punks seemed real, so I was afraid of them; or rather, my dealings with them consisted of trying very hard to act as if I, too, was real. It was a nervewracking performance, and made me too insecure for much empathy. Looking back, I do feel empathy for the people I remember from that time. What I thought of as “being real” was often, I think, being overtly angry or in pain. Some of the people I encountered in that world were seriously drug addicted. I sometimes wonder which ones are still alive.
Many of the characters are alternatively driven and paralyzed by nostalgia: one character talks about “tipping down the memory chute,” and in “The Gold Cure” Bennie is constantly reliving old traumas. Do you think memory plays this kind of role in most people’s lives, or are these characters especially haunted?
I find myself thinking more about the past as I get older . . . maybe because there’s just more of it to think about. At the same time, I’m less haunted by it than I was as a younger person. I guess that’s probably the ideal: to reach a point where you have access to all of your memories, but you don’t feel victimized by them. In the book, people’s relationship to memory is usually an indicator of their present-day comfort; Bennie, as you mention, is besieged by shameful memories. But he’s also recovering from a divorce caused (we later learn) by his own relentless infidelity. In other words, he’s feeling guilty.