I was behind the game on Jennifer Egan, and became familiar with her only after she won the Pulitzer Prize for A Visit From the Goon Squad. A Visit From the Goon Squad is a series of interlocking stories, and I’ve heard some complain that in the end the chapters did not come together neatly enough for them. But for me, this book was perfect. I loved that there was no bow to tie it all up. Sometimes, life’s a mess. In real life, we really do lose track of people who once meant so much to us. The characters were loosely connected through space and time, and sometimes we saw what the world looked like through their eyes and sometimes we saw how they looked through other people’s eyes. I find it endlessly fascinating to think about how we perceive ourselves versus the way others perceive us. How vast or narrow that gap can be.
I loved the book because it was:
A. Different than anything I’ve ever read. It continued to surprise me, right up to the last page.
C. Both entertaining and profound. It covered the gamut of emotions. Sometimes funny, sometimes sad, but always true. All of the characters (and there were a lot of them) felt so real to me.
Anyway. Jennifer Egan is on my mind because I just read her story Black Box in the Science Fiction issue of the New Yorker. It’s indeed science fiction–strange and haunting. But it’s also a very human story , (how much can we sacrifice before we sacrifice too much?) I was reading it in our extraordinarily comfortable La-z-Boy and got sleepy toward the end, so I took a nap right afterward. I had a dream that I was in the story, the main character, on this mysterious, frightening mission in the Mediterranean surrounded by violent criminals, (perhaps Egan’s use of the second person convinced me that it was actually me.)
Randomly enough, a friend emailed me the link to the story today, and told me that it was originally composed on a twitter feed, which is so dang cool. No wonder each sentence is so careful. Each is a story unto itself.
Being alone with a violent and ruthless
man, surrounded by water, can make the
shore seem very far away.
In a great three part interview with Slate Magazine, Egan says that she tries to create a new challenge for herself with each book. Once, she wrote from the perspective of a prisoner and tried to do away with all lyrical language. Now, she’s writing historical fiction. In a reading that Elissa Bassist (great writer, a woman I knew back when I was involved with the SF lit scene) went to, Egan explained that for Goon Squad:
1. Every chapter must have a different protagonist.
2. Every chapter must have a different theme and feel.
3. Each chapter must stand alone.
I love this idea of inventing a new framework for each piece. Of committing completely to it. How thrilling for a writer. Each piece a brand new adventure for her to write, and for us to read. I love how she’s willing to toy with format, (one chapter of Goon Squad is a girl’s powerpoint ‘journal.’) I love that I never know what to expect from her, but that I can be sure that I will be delighted, intrigued, and always satisfied.