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Part of Us that Can’t Be Touched


July 1, 2010

The novelist on Goon Squad, the drug-taking intensity of high school kids, and the Gothic novel.

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With her new book, the short-story cycle A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan reinvents herself as a punk Proust, hippie Dos Passos, a rock-and-roll Faulkner who uses her mastery of multiple points of view to address the horrors of memory, perils of narcissism, and the evolution of PR in a tale that spans fifty years in just 272 pages. Goon Squad is not Egan’s first self-reinvention: like Michael Chabon or Karen Joy Fowler, she brings her subtle and vivid prose to a new genre with every book, producing novels and stories that function beautifully both as literary fiction and as urban fairytale or Gothic or picaresque or international thriller. What unifies much of her work is the theme of dangerously transcendent desires. The characters in Egan’s fiction fall into the trap of idealizing the world, themselves, and others: they embrace false epiphanies about the meaning of life; they long to emulate charismatic figures who are not good for them; they are led astray by their memories of the past and visions of the future.

To wit, Egan’s debut novel, The Invisible Circus, is an early example of the Hippie Elegy, that genre of novels, from Pynchon’s Vineland to Nunez’s The Last of Her Kind, that mourns and reconsiders the myth of the sixties. The novel follows teenager Phoebe O’Connor, who feels that she’s just missed the magic of the sixties, in her travels from San Francisco through England, Amsterdam, France, Germany, and Italy as she searches for clues to the fate of her dead sister Faith, a thrill-seeking flower child whose quest for sublime experiences led her to betray her own generous nature and join the Baader-Meinhof Gang. Her second novel, Look at Me, a National Book Award finalist in 2001, is an epic fable about identity, credulity, and what an understanding of post-industrial America can do to your head. Look at Me is intermittently narrated in the first person; but its fairy-tale heroine is a caustic has-been model, Charlotte Swenson, whose journey from New York back to her native Rockford connects her to all of the other disparate characters. The Keep, her third novel, is a Gothic metafiction about the confines of prison, gender, family, and desire itself. The three central characters’ points of view combine to tell a tale of envy, guilt, the inescapable past, and the remote possibility of freedom.

The topics of isolation, corporeality, desire, and disorientation that permeate Egan’s fiction also appear in much of her journalistic work. Egan has written a series of probing cover stories for The New York Times Magazine on such topics as homeless children, single women using donor sperm, pediatric bipolar disorder, and gay teens who employ the internet not only to come out but to carry on entire affairs. She’s published many book reviews for the New York Times, the New York Observer, and The Nation, and written essays for Slate and Salon.

Egan was born in Chicago and grew up in San Francisco, often visiting her grandparents in Rockford, Illinois, home of the director Joe Mantello and the band Cheap Trick. She has lived in New York for over twenty years and is a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship as well as awards for her journalism. I met her at a casual bistro in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Egan, a onetime teen model whom novelist Samuel Delany aptly characterized as “a vision of loveliness,” arrived a few minutes after three o’clock, wearing a short-sleeved shirt with wide horizontal stripes. Egan grazed at her salad, and answered questions for nearly three hours—on a couple of occasions interjecting questions of her own or praising novelists such as Don Lee and Robert Stone. The following conversation is transcribed and condensed from that discussion, with material added from an exchange Egan had with me and her other auditors at a reading in Philadelphia on June 17th, 2010.

Joshua Lukin for Guernica

Guernica: A number of the interlinked stories in your forthcoming book have appeared in Harper’s or The New Yorker as stand-alones, and, even though you knew early on that they were going to constitute a single book, they work very well separately.

Jennifer Egan: I had three ground rules: One of them was that each piece had to stand strongly on its own: it had to be forceful individually. I wanted the whole to be more than the sum of the parts, but I didn’t want them to lean on each other: I wanted them to enhance each other. The second was that each piece had to be completely different in terms of mood and world and voice. It ranges from sad to outright farce, and I really wanted to encompass all that in one book. And the third rule was that each piece had to be about a different person. There could be overlapping people, but there’s only one chapter in which we look through a particular person’s set of eyes. So those were my three ground rules. I knew each chapter had to have absolute individuality and uniqueness in order for this to be solid.

But in this book, I ended up relying more on instinct than any of my others. One of my rules that I ended up having to give up, because it didn’t work, was: Time will always move backward. But I couldn’t start the book with the stories set in the future. I ended up having to organize it intuitively. I would say, ‘Having just read this, what is the thing that would most surprise and interest the reader? What feels like it should be there, if the principle is surprise?’ I think I found the right order to make it work.

Guernica: Backing up a little, how did you learn to write?

Jennifer Egan: By doing it wrong. A lot. And finding that out, and little by little learning to do it right. When I went to UPenn, I took a writing workshop with Romulus Linney, the playwright. He’s a really great teacher. And actually after I took that class I worked with him independently for a year. I remember still, bringing in a piece in which in the first paragraph, I noted that “the sky looked like the underbelly of a duck.” Romulus said, “Do you see why that’s laughable?”

Then when I went to England, I wrote a truly terrible book, which was really an attempt at The Invisible Circus; but there was no overlap between the two. And I enjoyed that experience, but the book was really unreadable. I found that out when I came back and sent it out to people and got very bad reactions.

And then I began taking workshops here in New York, just at people’s houses. I took one with Philip Schultz, who now runs the Writers Studio but then was teaching out of his living room. He’s a poet: he won the Pulitzer two years ago.

The thing that Phil really focused on was the importance of an emotional intensity, a rawness. When I walked in there I was writing really really badly: I’d gone completely off the rails in writing this godawful novel. Because I was getting no feedback: I was just in a vacuum, thinking it was fabulous. So the stuff I was writing at that point was just hard to listen to. And Phil would let anyone who brought work read it. But the way that he would get us through all that work was by stopping you when he felt that the group had heard enough. And for a long time I never got through a full story. I think the most I got was about halfway through. And he would say, “I think we’ve heard enough”: then they would all let me have it. But there was finally a point where he did let me finish. And that was a real turning point for me. I finally reconnected with an old impulse in myself that for some reason had just been lost.

Guernica: And you studied with Tom Jenks, fiction editor at GQ?

Jennifer Egan: Tom Jenks was much more interested in craft. And voice. So he very quickly started pushing me toward something different. The first story that I wrote in Tom’s class is one that Phil would have liked, called “Sacred Heart,” about girls at Catholic school. It’s a decent story. And the class was very excited when I read it: “Oh, it’s so powerful.” And Tom sat there; and when it was finally his turn, he said, “It’s good. But you can do better.” And I couldn’t believe it—I was waiting for my pat on the head from the teacher, but it didn’t come. What he said was, “I want you to write a story in which there are no kids. And nothing about the past. No flashbacks.”

At first I thought, “What the hell will I even do?” I ended up writing this story called “The Stylist.“ Which was very different from anything I had done, and was a direct response to what Tom had suggested I do. And it was exciting to me to do something different. When I brought it in, the other people in the class didn’t really respond to it; but Tom was ecstatic. I’d brought in just the first half. And he said—this was a little impolitic of him—“If the second half is as good as the first half, I’ll publish it in GQ.” Right in front of everyone. So then, because I write so blindly and I never know what’s going to happen next, I thought, “How do I possibly wrap this up in a way that’s going to be satisfying?” It was really daunting. But I just pushed forward; and then when I finished it, it turned out he couldn’t publish it in GQ: the editor-in-chief didn’t like it. I was devastated… I thought my life was over. But then I sent it to The New Yorker, to Dan Menaker, whom I’d corresponded with once before, and they took it.

People who are really young, really unformed, and then thrown into situations that seem very adult. There are a lot of dramatic possibilities there.

Guernica: You’ve written how autobiographical writing isn’t your forte. But you have published three or four personal essays—what prompted those essays? The one on your anorexia for Salon, the Slate Diary, the Patti Smith piece, and…

Jennifer Egan: Basically, what prompted me to do all of those was just a feeling of excitement about those topics: I would never do it otherwise. But in every single case, once I was working on it, I hated it and regretted it. Because I hate writing about myself so much. But on occasion I feel like there’s a story I have to tell about something that seems worth it, for whatever reason. The anorexia one, I just felt like I had a passionate point to make there, and I wanted to make it. Patti Smith, I felt like I had a good story to tell there, so I wanted to tell that. “Reading Lucy” I had promised to someone—I tried to get out of it, actually, and I could just hear the disappointment, and the frustration—apparently a number of people were trying to back out at the last minute.

Guernica: The Patti Smith piece is fascinating because you say in it something like “I have repeatedly returned to this era in my writing.”

Jennifer Egan: That drug-taking intensity of high school kids, it’s interesting to me still. Just because it’s such a strange combination of factors. People who are really young, really unformed, and then thrown into situations that seem very adult. There are a lot of dramatic possibilities there.

Guernica: The passage of time, which you’ve praised Kate Walbert for writing so well about in Our Kind.

Jennifer Egan: I don’t think I knew how fascinated by time I was when I read Kate Walbert’s book. It’s funny, because my new one is essentially a bunch of related shorter pieces that are obsessed with time. I don’t know if she inspired me—there’s very little overlap between the books. And there are actually some pretty big differences. But time definitely becomes the great subject.

The Invisible Circus is very much about that. In a way. I guess it’s the way you think of time as a kid, or as a younger person, wanting to be there at the right time instead of realizing that your time is very limited. And that being there at any time is really quite good! The idea of there being a right time is such a mental habit of youth. But then again, you find yourself revisiting that as you get older too, the idea that things were somehow better when you were younger.

Guernica: I was struck by the exchange in “Why China?” where Sam asks Stuart what it felt like to steal the money and Stuart says, “Like everything feels when it’s you… Like nothing.”

Jennifer Egan: There’s this tendency to romanticize someone else’s life or see it in vivid tones that you assume they must also experience as they live it. And in fact, so much of what life is for a particular person is the daily habits of their lives. And so I think part of what excited Sam about Stuart was this idea that he had kind of moved outside the norm of everyday life. And that’s actually an ongoing theme in my work: that’s what excites Phoebe; that’s why Phoebe is so excited about Faith.

Guernica: That’s what’s exciting about Sasha’s kleptomania in A Visit from the Goon Squad? Or is she doing it, as she claims, “to assert her toughness, her individuality”?

Jennifer Egan: Well, I think that’s how she feels in that moment: she feels like, “Oh—how can I not do this: it’s such a great challenge.” Obviously, on some larger level that her therapist is trying to get her to see, it’s in fact weakening her and making her life very tough. So, it’s one of those stories that she tells herself—and we all do that.

But I think that’s something different from what Sam and Phoebe perceive. I’m not a kleptomaniac. And I haven’t even studied it. But instinctively, I would put that in the category of an addiction. It just has to be done—there’s a kind of high involved. In a way, that’s also what motivates Faith; that’s what causes her to get into serious trouble. The desire to ride a wave of fantasy as far as it will go; but the trouble is, it᾿s impossible to do that. I think that tension informs a lot of our lives. That’s what a midlife crisis is. You have made the terrible discovery about time. And you suddenly think, “Wow.” I can’t say that this has happened to me exactly, but it’s so clear that what happens is, you look around and go, “My God! Shouldn’t something else be happening to me?”

Guernica: When I see Phoebe realizing at the end of The Invisible Circus that you can’t live at that level of intensity all the time, I wonder if Moose in Look at Me is exemplary of somebody doing that. Living in his little revelation.

Jennifer Egan: I think what motivates him is a sense of purpose, an almost evangelical purpose. So I think that the intensity may be an epiphenomenon, in his case, as opposed to the actual goal, which has been the case more with the other people I’ve written about. Certainly Faith in The Invisible Circus. That’s a book that’s all about the desire for transcendent experience. But I don’t think the issue for Moose is seeking intensity. There are a lot of vicissitudes in his daily life. And he experiences his world in a very raw, immediate way that’s often quite painful to him, but at times still very exciting and even euphoric. But I don’t think he’s a seeker of that. His life is all about just trying to keep it together.

Guernica: It was generous of you to academics and intellectuals to put Moose and Irene in that novel.

Jennifer Egan: Moose is my favorite character. I can’t imagine writing about him again, but I wish I could. I would like just to visit him and see how he’s doing. I’d like to just go to Rockford and see if I could find any of those people around. I’m really still fond of all of them: I miss all of them, but especially Moose.

I felt just as excited writing academic papers as I do writing fiction. Inspiration, discovery, trying to create a compelling argument that unfolded with a certain pace: it was all the same thing.

Guernica: Unlike some other contemporary novelists, you present the academic world affectionately and without snark.

Jennifer Egan: I know that there’s a long tradition of making fun of academia, but I am not tempted to do that. I’m sure there’s plenty to make fun of there, but Kingsley Amis did it well; and I’m not sure it needs to be done again. I have used it as a way of glancing, within a novel, at whatever intellectual girding I’m using to support it. In The Keep, there’s no one in academe, but there is someone with a Big Theory—Howard. The hotel creator. And at a certain point, he lays out his theory; and his theory is kind of important to the book. It’s not that it exactly is my theory, but it’s important to have it out there. So I’m interested in the people who are actively trying to analyze and theorize about the world around them. They’re very useful as characters. And even if they sound a little crazy, sometimes, you know a lot of theories are.

I often think that it would have been a great life to have been an academic. I felt just as excited writing academic papers as I do writing fiction. Inspiration, discovery, trying to create a compelling argument that unfolded with a certain pace: it was all the same thing. And I always thought everything would change if I did it right. Even if it was just the ten trillionth essay that’s ever been written about Paradise Lost. You know what I mean? It’s a wonderful delusion.

Guernica: You’ve written about your love for Henry James stories—what other boning up on The Gothic did you do in preparing to write The Keep? Did you read Mrs. Radcliffe?

Jennifer Egan: Yes, absolutely. The Mysteries of Udolpho is exciting. I think the mistake that she makes is that she provides a scientific explanation, which is really disappointing. I think that the best Gothic novels don’t. But yes, I started with the earliest ones and read all the way up through Joyce Carol Oates, Stephen King. Wilkie Collins is a real page-turner. I was interested in all of it.

Guernica: Maureen McClarnon in Bookslut wrote that the book’s last chapter was unnecessary and that The Keep would have been a really great book without it; but most readers I’ve spoken with disagree.

Jennifer Egan: Not everyone loves the last chapter, but to me it’s essential. I kept feeling like there was some presence there that I wasn’t quite seeing clearly; and I also felt that even though some version of the book is being written in a writing class, it was simply too much to suggest that Ray could have written the book as I’d written it. And I also felt like it was a little too male. And there was just some twist that I wasn’t getting yet. And it wasn’t a light-bulb moment, but it just evolved in my mind that Holly was an answer to a lot of that. That it was her hand that would have pulled all this together in some way. So it was extremely natural to me that she would have the last word. And I’m a little baffled by people who are so offended by that.

Guernica: Other people were bothered by it?

Jennifer Egan: Yeah: I don’t dwell on reviews too much, but there were definitely complaints. There was the one review you mentioned where someone said, just don’t read it. Stop before you get there. Whatever. To me, there was no question that it was the right thing to do. And it was probably the hardest part of the book to write. I at that point had so accustomed myself to Ray’s writing voice, which is light on metaphor to the point of being almost completely literal, and not lyrical at all, that it was a huge adjustment to go back to this kind of writing that was more like “my” writing. It was a good challenge. But then it was hard to re-assume the persona of someone who would want to write lyrically and to use metaphor and all of that. I had to try that last chapter a number of times before it worked. So it was a relief when it finally did. And the irony is, that is also totally Gothic: the idea of the text within the text, of this text being created…

Guernica: Of the text being recovered from having been buried in the ground…

Jennifer Egan: Totally! That’s a cheesy and common Gothic device. But to me that ending is what elevates it to some degree over just another Gothic…

Guernica: Your fiction contains a number of stories on self-injury—the sort of thing you discussed the history of in your article, “Power Suffering.”

Jennifer Egan: I did another article about self-injurers for The New York Times Magazine. And they all describe a feeling of empowerment. Which of course is terribly ironic because the injury is destroying their lives, as is the case with anorexia.

Guernica: Faith hurts herself a couple of times.

Jennifer Egan: She feels that somehow she rights a balance that way, or takes charge. She makes a miscalculation in terms of how this act of hers settles a score with the universe. And feels somehow empowered in doing so, when in fact her suicide is another death that she’s inflicted on the world and that’s very hard for her family to deal with. That would be a good example of that phenomenon. The irony of doing something that’s very hurtful, feeling that you’re actually helping people.

Guernica: And voluntary injury shows up in the scene with Spiro in Look at Me. Like Moose, like Howard in The Keep, Spiro has a theory…

Jennifer Egan: He feels that there’s a lot of emotional artifice in the world, and that he’s cutting through it. Literally, by slashing up these women’s faces. Daniel Boorstin, I think, hit it right on the head with his book The Image, which he published, I believe, in ‘61. He understood exactly what would happen with the advent of widespread use of television. And one of the things he says is that as mediated experience grows more and more omnipresent, people will begin to crave authenticity. And then the media will strive desperately to fulfill that craving with ever greater heights of artifice.

So Spiro is just a hilarious example of that. He understands that he’s in a hall of mirrors, that all of us are, and wants desperately to bring something real to people’s lives. The route he takes, while it makes a certain kind of sense, one could say is simply exacerbating the problem and is ridiculous. But also someone’s getting hurt. The Korean girl who can barely speak English is getting her face cut, and that’s pretty ugly. She’s disempowered; she’s been disenfranchised; and she’s the one who ends up getting cut.

There’s such a temptation to think—and I get frightened by this—that people are Just Going Crazy.

Guernica: Moose knows—to use a phrase I got from a friend—that “post-industrial means that I got out.” That industry just moved to parts of the world where people would make things for less money. While Thomas elides that completely, he says that “No one makes things any more.”

Jennifer Egan: See, the thing is, Thomas’s theory makes sense too! I love doing that. I wish I could do that all the time. I like it when things make total sense but are ridiculous at the same time. It’s hard to do it: if they’re just ridiculous, that’s boring. And if they just make sense, that’s preaching. But if you can do both, that’s a nice line to walk.

Guernica: You have an eighteenth-century sensibility.

Jennifer Egan: Tristram Shandy was a formative book for me. It suggests that the novel is in its nature, in its essence, experimental. And the idea of experimentation being even debatable is so silly!

Guernica: There’s a lot in your work about people who don’t understand themselves but think they know what’s authentic in others. Do you share Erving Goffman’s belief in a “sacred self,” an inviolable core underneath the various façades?

Jennifer Egan: I started Look at Me thinking that there was not one, and that I would reveal that through the course of this book and show the ways in which modern media and celebrity fixation have eroded that core. But I think the book very clearly makes the opposite argument. So I guess I believe that there is some part of us that can’t be touched by all that exposure. But I think it can be very hard to find that part. There’s such a temptation to think—and I get frightened by this—that people are Just Going Crazy. With this desire to be seen, in some way. And it’s worrisome, when you think, “Are these really human beings? Are they really people? Who are they? Do they know?” It’s troubling. But Look at Me clearly makes the argument that they are real people and that there’s no way that they can violate that core of themselves, much as they try. I guess if I wrote that, I must think it; so maybe I should take comfort from that.

But I do continue to worry. The world has become much more that way, since I wrote Look at Me—wildly more. Reality TV, with the exception of MTV, did not exist. Twitter, all of that. The web saturation that we have, the minicam epidemic: all of that was so nascent. I felt worried then, and I feel even more worried now. But as confused as people might be sometimes about who they are—and I think it does get very confusing, when you’re busy trying to somehow present yourself for other people more than you’re trying to understand yourself—I think that there is an answer in there: it can just be hard to see.

G

Editors Recommend:

Nerdsmith
Before he disappears from the spotlight once more, Junot Diaz sets the record straight on immigration, identity, family, and the brief and wondrous origins of his novel’s title character.

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