Compelling fun: An evening with author Jennifer Egan

Jennifer Egan
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INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) - Proust, Powerpoint and concept albums might sound like a mismatched trio, but after an evening with author Jennifer Egan, it all magically comes together – much like A Visit from the Goon Squad, her Pulitzer Prize-winning 2011 novel. Egan read the first chapter of the book at the Reilly Room at Atherton Union Wednesday night as part of Butler University's excellent Visiting Writers Series.

Egan quotes Marcel Proust from In Search of Lost Time at the beginning of Goon Squad. After Wednesday's reading, she confessed to reading Proust in her twenties, only to find herself bored with Proust's intense focus on the passing of time. "What kind of topic is that? Who cares?" Egan said, mimicking her twentysomething self and drawing some knowing laughs in the process. A decade later, though, she says she was ready for it – but even then, it took her book group six years to muddle through it, in the meantime producing five children between them.

Although Goon Squad unfolds in a fragmented way, with each chapter told through the eyes of a different character at a new point in time, Egan's writing is engaging and personal. That compelling quality is by design, although Egan says her projects may begin as "blind, spontaneous writing." And she describes writing as fun, something that stunned at least one audience member who asked her about it.

"I really believe in fun," Egan said, explaining her writing process. "I don't think fun is frivolous. I think it's critical."

During the question and answer session Wednesday night, she said her goal as a writer and as a reader is to be transported to another world. When she feels she's making that connection, "it's usually a good sign." Even if that means revising a project 70 times!

Egan divides Goon Squad into Parts A and B – a throwback to the vinyl concept albums of the 1970s she grew up listening to – David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust or the Who's Quadrophenia and Tommy. She compared the idea to Goon Squad, a work that tells a big story in "small, discrete parts" and a "collision of moods and tones." She describes the first chapter as "the first track of my concept album."

Goon Squad pursues its characters into the future, delves into their past and reveals connections, often moving laterally as opposed to chronologically or even reverse chronological order. It's a richly layered work that evokes a certain mystery that Egan says she's always striving for – much like the 19th century serial novels of Charles Dickens and similar writers.

A dichotomy between this old-fashioned approach and modern communication technology somehow coexists in her work. In Goon Squad, one chapter is narrated in Powerpoint by a child. In her short story Black Box, which appeared in last summer's New Yorker science fiction issue, the action unfolds in the form of tweets – which in fact were tweeted out by the New Yorker for an hour every evening over the course of a week before it was published in traditional magazine format.

Even minor characters can have depth in Egan's work. A very minor character in Goon Squad becomes the heroine spy of Black Box, which is told in the form of instructions; the action is assumed by the reader. Egan says the Twitter format was an experiment and readily admits it may not work for Twitter (or traditional fiction) die-hards.

"You have to have a tweet persona" to use Twitter successfully, she said, and Egan felt she didn't really want to go there. It took her about a year to write Black Box using a Japanese-style notebook with eight squares per page to write on.

Technology poses a conundrum for Egan, who resisted buying a copy of Powerpoint even after she realized she couldn't open the files her corporate friends had sent her while she was researching the software.

"I wasn't entirely sure what Powerpoint was," she said.

For her, the technology posed a challenge – not just in terms of figuring out how to use it but to tell the story and make it work. In the end, she says the story told by the Powerpoint presentation had its inherent sentimentality stripped by the cold efficiency of the slides. Straight prose wouldn't have worked, Egan said – and she also ditched the idea of epic poetry. In fact, the Powerpoint chapter was added into Goon Squad after she had sold the book. Her editor, she noted, did not say, "Gee, we're really sorry there's no Powerpoint."

Egan was three chapters into Goon Squad when she realized she had a book – although it wasn't the one she set out to write. Then she began to wonder what kind of book it would be.

"Not a novel, not a short story collection," she mused, then decided, "Who cares what it is?" She developed three rules that were responsible for crafting the unusual structure of the novel: each chapter would be about a different character, although some characters would appear as minor players in other chapters; each chapter would have a different mood or tone, and each must stand completely on its own.

The result is a surprisingly cohesive story that skillfully interweaves the experiences of multiple characters at different points in their lives – and successfully makes the reader take note of the passing of time and the strange wistfulness that goes along with it. It's not epic poetry, but it just might be an epic concept album.