Jennifer Egan Fever


Arts & Culture

Photograph by Pieter M van Hattem/Vistalux.

Did you know that Jennifer Egan was robbed by a motorcyclist in Spain at the age of twenty-two? That when she was little, she wanted to be a doctor, but then she tried to be an archeologist? That she’s written exactly one celebrity profile and it’s of Calvin Klein? And that she received a gratuitous amount of CK1, which she wore until it ran out? That her first apartment in New York City was on West 69th Street but she has also lived on East 7th Street (between First Avenue and Avenue A) and West 28th Street (between 6th and 7th Avenues), but now she lives in Fort Greene? That she wrote her first (and unpublished) novel while studying abroad at Cambridge? That she was a reader for The Paris Review? That she writes her first drafts by longhand? And her second?

I have Jennifer Egan fever. I caught it at the beginning of last year, when I read “Ask Me if I Care,” a short story of hers that The New Yorker had excerpted from her then-forthcoming novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad. I read the other two stories The New Yorker had published on my iPhone while getting a pedicure. It’s a banal admission only worth recalling because I remember sitting in the salon’s lounge long after the polish had dried and it was time to leave—I had to read it all, right then and there. After that, I read every single story she published, every novel she had written, every interview I could get my hands on. (I knew the obsession was bad when I started picking through the Amazon reviews.)

Egan’s prose is stunning, funny, sexy—cool. Her stories reference Black Flag and the Dead Kennedys. She can write about an attractive kleptomaniac on a first date, a topic that seems dangerously cliché, and yet, by the end of opening paragraph, you’re hooked. She’s transparent about her writing process; honest about what she borrows and what she invents. It’s not that she “beat” Jonathan Franzen, though I see why some feel the need to pit the two authors against one another. And it’s not that she’s perfect—I have yet to encounter someone who liked The Keep—but maybe that’s also part of the appeal.

My Egan fever is how I found myself in the basement theater of the Crosby Street Hotel with a couple dozen other people for a new film series called “Under the Influence,” in which writers are asked to pick a film that has affected their work. We were there to watch Pulp Fiction. With Egan. We had bought our tickets in April, before she had even won the Pulitzer. I sat one row behind her and about five seats to her right. When I laughed, I looked over to see if she had laughed, too. When I covered my ears in anticipation of a gunshot, I watched to see if she had flinched, too. When I saw her in the bathroom after the screening and entered a stall, only to see that the toilet’s water was still spinning, I wondered—for more than just a second—whether I was about to use the same toilet seat as she.

Egan’s story of how she wrote Goon Squad has been repeated on many occasions—she was frustrated with writing the novel she was supposed to and so she began to write interlocking stories about a handful of characters—but she admitted that evening that she owes a great debt to Quentin Tarantino for the way Goon Squad plays with chronology and narrative. “I had to completely let go of any kind of linear chronology,” Egan told us before playing the movie. “But it was interesting how hard that was to do. There was something in me that didn’t want to do it, even though I knew that the most fun of the book, even as I was working on it, was not going forward.”

Egan had only seen Pulp Fiction once before, in a theater sometime in 1994, and when the lights came up, she admitted she was shocked by what she had seen. “I was just copying this movie! I even have a character named Jules! Oh my God. In a way, it’s slightly frightening. I mean, how much was I really influenced? I don’t know. Not consciously, but it’s really amazing how much happens without our knowing it.” She paused, then offered analysis: “They’re constantly talking about time. And in fact the whole rhythm of the film is about a task that needs to get done, a timeline, and then delays.”

“I actually didn’t know you’d only seen it once,” said Michael Maren, the series’s organizer. “I assumed like a lot of people you’d kind of gone and watched it over and over and over again.”

“I can’t really do that with movies. I don’t have time,” said Egan. “But I remember a lot of it. I also loved the constant counterpoint between outrageous cartoonish violence and domesticity. That’s where so much of the hilarity comes from. It’s like, you know, his wife is going to come home! So they’re scrubbing the car!”

“Bruce Willis’s role struck me as being a lot more important than previous times when I’ve seen it,” offered Maren. “Maybe it’s because I was watching it that way. When Christopher Walken says to him, ‘Let’s hope you don’t have to go through this war like your father did,’ he kind of goes through that exact same war.”

“I remember not liking that thread very much the first time. I just wanted to get back to the other drama,” said Egan. “But this time, I felt the connectedness of the two a little more. It has that Joycean, one-day feeling to it, in a way.”

“This film is entirely about the dialogue,” said Maren.

“It’s about delays, really,” said Egan.

Eventually, the discussion wound down. It was getting late, and wine and hor d’oeuvres were promised. A long table was set up by McNally Jackson, and Egan sat behind it for the rest of the night, signing copies and greeting her fans. Toward the very end, my friend, also feverish, who had brought her hardcover copy of Goon Squad for Egan to sign, approached the author, apologizing for bothering her so late in the evening. “Oh, don’t apologize,” Egan said to us, motioning at the stack of books. “I’m going to sign every copy here. Now, how do I spell your name?”