Anyone tracking the monstrous critical success of Jennifer Egan’s latest opus, A Visit from the Goon Squad, probably knows it is the uncanny love child of conceptual insight gleaned from years of reading Proust and structural inspiration drawn from The Sopranos. Beset by time as the ultimate goon, Egan’s richly eclectic cast of music-industry have and have-nots confront one another across three decades, multiple points of view, even a chapter written in PowerPoint. Though Egan’s genius for narrative experimentation has brought this Brooklyn resident much international acclaim in the handful of months since the book’s publication, her humility and humor in discussing her work remain. The book also happens to land on our Best of 2010 list.
Are you still happy to talk about the novel?
This book stands up to talk better than my more conventional novels have because there’s so much diversity within it, and different people tend to focus on different things. Just when I think my head is going to explode if I have to say another word about PowerPoint, I’ll have several conversations in which PowerPoint doesn’t come up. And by the time it does, I’m refreshed and able to talk about it again.
One of your more downtrodden characters says, “One key ingredient of so-called experience is the delusional faith that it is unique and special, that those included in it are privileged and those excluded from it are missing out.” Do you share this view? If so, is that knowledge liberating or daunting when attempting to create art?
Ha! I’d never connected that riff of Scotty’s with art-making, but I can see why you might. For me, the delusion part is exactly right. While I’m writing, I feel an urgency whose key ingredient seems to be a blind conviction that what I’m doing is critical and will change the world. I feel this regardless of the nature of the project. I felt it in college, writing papers on [John] Milton and [Edmund] Spenser—an almost goofy faith that they would detonate upon impact. Obviously that’s nuts, but it’s incredibly motivating and exhilarating. But not intimidating, interestingly, which I guess is proof that on some level I know it’s all a fantasy, and that civilization isn’t going to stand or fall on my efforts. But by the time a recognition of my own limited impact really settles over me, I’m already fantasizing about the next project!
You’ve said before that you wrote four of the chapters at an earlier point in your life, yet the overall perspective seems to be that of someone in her 40s.When I wrote those four earlier pieces, I was in such a different period of my life. Not only was I in my mid/heading-into-late 30s, but I didn’t even have kids yet. It spanned such a huge leap in my life—from a person staying up late, having fun and also working very, very hard, pretty workaholically in New York, to a woman trying to get something done with two kids living a much more domestic life than before. I think that leap felt especially sudden because I had my first child at 38 and then another two years later, and so basically, from about 37 to 42, I was pretty much in the kind of babies-nursing-pregnancy thing, and when I emerged from that, I was middle-aged, and that was really a shock. That was a really stunning shock. One of the reasons the shock felt so abrupt is I found myself having that “a-ha” moment I’ve seen a number of people have in their 40s—of realizing that you know life doesn’t go on forever, certain things we knew theoretically we now feel in our fibers—and to have made these discoveries as the mother of tiny children was also kind of odd. I mean it created this tremendous sense of frailty. In a way, maybe this is a response to the bewildered renegotiation of my relationship to the world.
For a list of 2010's best fiction, click here.
A Visit from the Goon Squad
Knopf / June / 9780307592835 / $25.95
This book was featured in the Kirkus Best of 2010