Litteraturhuset Series: Jennifer Egan

American author Jennifer Egan drew a sellout crowd to Oslo's Litteraturhuset on Wednesday night. Organizers had to set out extra rows of chairs on the floor of the main theater to accommodate Egan's fans. The room was warm, thick with anticipation and the rumble of low voices. My friend, Zoë, and I edged in toward two empty seats.

"Note to self," I whispered to her. "Win a Pulitzer."

And Zoë, who never fails to keep things real, whispered back, "Note to self: Get published first."

I took the last sip of my pinot noir as we settled in. We were only two of what I'm sure were many aspiring authors in the room, including a few of our fellow members from the Oslo International Writers Group. But that night, all of us had come primarily as readers, fans of Egan's work. 

She'd arrived in Oslo to promote and discuss A Visit from the Goon Squad, the novel which earned her the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The book is as impossible to describe succinctly as it is to spoil for those who have not yet read it. Written as a series of nonlinear chapters which each read as a standalone story starring a different protagonist, Goon Squad is a fresh take on the art of the novel, one influenced by both the 19th century serialized fiction of Dickens and the HBO mob hit The Sopranos.  It is organized in two "sides," A and B, like a record or a cassette tape, and every chapter, like a song, is complete in itself, but also builds to create a full album.

As Litteraturhuset's Head of Programming, Silje Riise Naess, said in her introduction, "It's about time Jennifer Egan was published here in Norway!"

Norwegian author Linn Ullmann led the interview, and the first thing she asked Egan about was that crazy title, A Visit from the Goon Squad, which has given Scandinavian publishers a bit of trouble. Norwegian publishers ultimately decided on the title En bølle på døra, which translates to something like A Bully at Your Door.

"I came up with the title years before I started the book," Egan said. "For a long time, whenever I had a new idea, I wondered, Will this book be Goon Squad? And it finally was."

"What exactly is a goon?" Ullman asked. "One of your characters says, Time is a goon. What does he mean?"

"A goon is a comic thing. Not a scary term, a silly term," she said. "It's like a very cartoonish thug. And Time is a goon is a completely made-up saying, but [it means] that time wins. The Grim Reaper, but in a lighter sense."

Everything about Egan was confident. She's been through dozens and dozens of interviews just like this one. I watched her shake back her hair, cut short, silky in the stage lights, the same silver-brown of a Yorkshire terrier's coat. I could picture her, a New York City adoptee (born in Chicago and raised in San Francisco), walking around Brooklyn with her ear-buds in, listening to Elvis Costello. Confident. Creative. Nothing Egan said in her interview was perfunctory or unthinking. Hundreds of people had gathered in Oslo just as similar crowds had in interviews across the U.S., everyone eager to catch a glimpse of the mind that had conceived a book this different, this wacky... a work Time Magazine described as an "expert fillet" of an epic novel.
Ullmann wasted no time bringing up what is possibly the most controversial chapter in Goon Squad, a first-person account of an attempted rape as told by the attacker. Chapter 9, Forty-Minute Lunch: Kitty Jackson, begins:

Movie stars always look small the first time you see them, and Kitty Jackson is no exception, exceptional though she may be in every other way.

The narrator is a reporter named Jules Jones. By then, the reader knows Jules will spend time in prison for the attack that's coming, but as this chapter begins in a posh restaurant on Madison Avenue, we have nothing to do but hang on and keep guessing. As the celebrity interview between Jules and Kitty unfolds, the reader is forced to see Jules's side of the story. 

"You managed to make a scene of attempted rape... hilariously funny," said Ullmann. "[The reader is] with [Jules] all the way. They understand why he wants to take [Kitty] into the park and rip her open."

While this might be true, the discomfort in the lecture hall became suddenly palpable.  A few people chuckled, though almost none of those laughing were men. Ullmann pushed on anyway, declaring Egan's knack for bringing humor to deeply dark material "Nabokov funny." Egan admitted that she enjoys co-mingling emotions, ideas, and circumstances.

"I love it when more than one thing can happen at once," she said. "It's how life is. Everything happening at once. Our minds are so active."

"Is that your life outlook?" asked Ullmann. "Crazy-and-plausible? Funny-and-dark?"

"In America," Egan said, swinging her blue-eyed gaze toward the audience. "It's that way."


When Ullmann asked whether Egan's own life influences her work, whether the vibrant and bizarrely-normal characters between the pages of Goon Squad are pulled from reality, Egan grew serious. No, she said. She never uses friends or family members as models for characters. 

"It's best if they look and sound like no one I've ever met," she said. "The fun is in being lifted out of my own experiences into a different world. That's my favorite thing as a reader and a writer."

Before the conversation could move on, Egan sat up a little straighter, as though she'd remembered something. 

"But I might have snuck into Goon Squad," she admitted.

As whom?

Chapter 12, Great Rock and Roll Pauses, is another much-discussed moment in Goon Squad. It is the portrait of a family from the perspective of a 12-year-old girl named Alison. Readers learn about Alison's parents (both characters they've met in previous chapters) and her older, mildly Autistic brother, Lincoln. Not only is Lincoln's obsession and comfort with the pauses in rock-n-roll music a fabulously unique way to illustrate the affects of Autism on a family, but the whole chapter is presented as a series of PowerPoint slides. (The chapter/slideshow is available for viewing on the author's website.)

"Why PowerPoint?" asked Ullmann.

"[Alison] is a 12-year-old peacemaker, observer, reporter. That's how I was," Egan said. "That chapter would have been very sentimental if written traditionally."

PowerPoint slides aren't the only way Egan avoids the trap of sentimentality in this book. The nonlinear presentation keeps readers from identifying with any one character too long. And the characters themselves are often tough to empathize with. The book opens with a chapter called Found Objects, and the protagonist is a woman named Sasha who seems to be struggling with kleptomania. In the very first scene, Sasha is about to "lift" a wallet from a woman's purse in the bathroom of a hotel. But Sasha is seeking help from a therapist and her problem clearly shames her.

"The theme of shame seems to run through your book," Ullmann commented.

"I think many people have things they're ashamed of," Egan said. "That's pretty innately human."

One row ahead of me, a man began to remove his sweatshirt. He reached behind himself and his fingers scrambled in the fabric as he gripped it and yanked it up and forward. In doing so, he nearly removed his undershirt, too, leaving his back entirely exposed. It's something I know so many people fear doing in public, leaving their flesh unintentionally uncovered. Even in the dim lighting of the theater, his back appeared mottled, possibly recently waxed. 

"We all have the same emotions to work with," Egan continued. "Of course, I'm using empathy and extrapolation. Anyone has had some experience [with] compulsion--it's what allowed me to understand the contours of [Sasha's]."

As Ullmann pointed out, since no book won the Pulitzer for Fiction in 2012, a huge controversy in the literary world, Egan and her Goon Squad continue to hold that spotlight. There was a smattering of impressed applause. Egan accepted it with a smile. The sparkling gold disks of her earrings sparkled like sequins. 

"At one point, one of your characters is almost eaten by a lion on safari. How do you make the choice to write a scene like that?" Ullmann asked.

"Flights of fancy--the big moves--are unconscious," said Egan. "I tend to write intuitively, without knowing what's going to happen in the first drafts."

She went on to detail her writing process: 

  • Handwriting the entire first draft ("And my handwriting is often illegible.")
  • Transcribing in type without editing it
  • Reading it through as she begins revisions 

Zoë and I had both attended the Ali Smith interview in April, and we agreed what a comfort it is that two successful authors have such vastly different processes. It was also an envious sort of comfort to hear that Goon Squad wasn't all smooth sailing. 

Egan admitted, bashfully, that Goon Squad's first draft had opened with a staggering cliché: 

She knew it was wrong. 

Egan had all but forgotten this mistake when she offered to donate the first pages of the first draft to a charity auction; the realization that her literary slip would be showing made her almost revoke the offer. 

"[And] there were chapters that didn't work," Egan went on. "Which was really frustrating. There were people I wanted to write about, but [I] couldn't pull it off at a high enough level."

This had much to do with the pressure of the book's style and sequence, both of which evolved into something different than what Egan had first imagined. She went where the characters took her. Sasha-the-wallet-thief's chapter came first, but in it, Egan discovered a very secondary character: Bennie-the-nouveau-riche-music-producer, a man who peppers his coffee with flakes of gold, believing it to be an aphrodisiac. 

"It's one thing to evoke a cliché of decadence," explained Egan, "But everyone who does that stuff has a reason." It made her wonder what Bennie's reason was, and so she wrote a chapter starring him.

But even under the strain of writing thirteen chapters, each with a drastically different point of view and attitude, she prevailed. Here, Ullmann pointed out that Egan has famously said she doesn't struggle with writer's block.

"Is that right?"

The interview was winding up, but this was my moment of epiphany. Most writers dread the phenomenon of writer's block. We treat it superstitiously, one eye on the dark corner of our room. And thus, most writers admit to having suffered from it at times. Bad days. Bad years. The stress of family, job, the recession. It's part of the club to which writers belong, or at least it seems that way. For a writer to say that this particular bogeyman, this particular goon, carries no weight with her would be like a Major League Baseball player saying he'd never even considered taking steroids.

But Egan nodded, then explained. "I'm not afraid to write badly."

When Egan spoke these words, the timbre of her voice changed. She remained confident, but there was something else woven in with the confidence--a silver thread of earnestness. I believed her. And I suddenly felt a wave of shame because that fear and weakness which she doesn't feel continue to be mine.

The crowd surrounding Egan's table after the reading, bunched up in a typical Norwegian "queue," jostled like pigeons around a discarded boller at a sidewalk café. I waited until she'd signed everyone else's books before I stepped forward. Her smile was the mechanical kind writers use at signings, sincerely-if-stubbornly gracious, used repeatedly as strangers approach her with copies of her book flapping open in their outstretched hands.

"I'm a proud owner of your book on Kindle," I said, feeling sheepish. "But would you mind signing my notebook instead?" 

She took it immediately, and I saw that beyond her fatigue, she was truly grateful that so many people had shown up for her in Oslo. She seemed like the kind of person who would have thanked each member of the audience individually and meant it. I bid her farewell, trying not to seem too much the fangirl, and only later read the inscription:

To Audrey -- I'm honored by all this note taking! Jenn Egan

For more information about the American Author Series running at Litteraturhuset this spring, visit their website.

Photo by Pieter M. Van Hattem/Vistalux


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This page contains a single entry by Audrey Camp published on May 11, 2012 9:15 PM.

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