Like her four previous books, alumna Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad received generally stellar reviews. But it didn’t look like this resistant-to-summary novel-in-stories would catch on with the public—that is, until she won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
By Sean Whiteman
Jennifer Egan C’85 walks into the Metropolitan Bakery for our meeting miraculously dry, despite the spring rain shower that’s just scalded the Philadelphia sidewalk. She orders a small coffee, and surveys the interior: stacks of handmade bread, pastries glistening under the glass, bagel smoke hanging in the air like incense. “I wish a place like this had been around when I was a student,” she says. Later this afternoon, Egan has a date at the Kelly Writers House—another structure that didn’t exist when she was a student—to read from her new novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad, which has just won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
Pick up any review of the novel, and two things are immediately apparent. One, people love her book. Two, nobody can describe exactly what it’s about. (Despite the title, it has nothing to do with hired thugs). Egan herself calls it a set of short stories, which are not so much linked as entangled. “I’ve always had trouble with the word ‘novel’ for this book,” she says, holding her copy at arm’s length, and peering at it as though trying to understand exactly what she’s wrought.
Nominally about the music industry, Goon Squad is a constellation of stories that loosely orbit the lives of Bennie Salazar, a brutally successful record producer, and Sasha, his efficient but kleptomaniacal assistant. But the story also roams freely through the San Francisco punk scene, lonely towns in Italy, gritty sections of New York City, an emotionally dysfunctional African safari, and an arid future when little children keep their diaries in the form of PowerPoint slides. And that list is far from exhaustive.
Like a vinyl LP, the book is divided into an A and B side, and each of the 13 chapters has a distinct voice. One is written in the second person, another is an entertaining parody of the celebrity profile, still another consists entirely of 76 PowerPoint slides. It might sound overly clever, but Egan rescues herself from gimmickry by filling each story with language that is deeply felt, and characters that matter. In fact, the chapter made of slides turns out to be one of the saddest, most affecting parts of the book.If there’s a common denominator it might be that, no matter the time period or place, each of Egan’s characters is struggling against time, and the wreckage it’s left behind. As an aging, burnt-out singer named Bosco puts it while beseeching his publicist: “How did I go from being a rock star to being a fat fuck that no one cares about?” In that same conversation, he’s the one that asks: “Time’s a goon, right? Isn’t that the expression?”
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FEATURE: Surprises Are Always the Best By Sean Whiteman
Photography by Sarah Bloom
©2011 The Pennsylvania Gazette