By Katie Webb Arts & Entertainment Editor
Getting on the subway in New York City, one never knows what eclectic group of crazy characters they will encounter. One can observe people from a peripheral view, watching a small piece of strangers’ lives unfold in a moment. This is what reading Jennifer Egan’s novel “A Visit from the Goon Squad” feels like.
Egan will be on campus Monday, November 4, at 7 p.m. as a guest speaker for the English Department’s program Great Writers, Great Readings. The event is at the Leo A. Guthart Cultural Center Theater across from Axinn Library.
I recently had the opportunity to not only read her Pulitzer Prize winning book, “A Visit from the Goon Squad,” but also interview Egan about her writing methods.
The novel begins with Sasha, a thirty-something year-old woman, in a bathroom stall fighting the compulsive urge to steal a wallet. Inevitably, she takes it and all manner of internal moral debates and debauchery follow. Tension builds, but before the reader can find out if Sasha will get caught, the timeline of the plot changes to Sasha in the future, analyzing the wallet theft in her therapist, Coz’s, office.
The structure of the book is chaotic. A fractured timeline takes the reader through several decades within a few sentences. Yet, the transitions through time seem effortless. And each chapter focuses on a different character. Each character’s life intertwines with the next.
“I really wanted every chapter to feel different,” said Egan.
She created each character’s chapter separately, only layering them together as one manuscript once she had developed a unique style for each story.
Much of the novel’s characters are connected through the punk rock music industry, whether they are producers, singers or receptionists.
Charlie, the teenage daughter of industry legend Lou, has a chapter that embodies Egan’s writing talents: fleshing out characters and manipulating time structures.
In the novel, Charlie converses with her younger brother Rolph about their father’s latest under-aged girlfriend, and how Charlie knows the relationship will eventually fail.
“Charlie shrugs. ‘I know Dad.’ Charlie doesn’t know herself. Four years from now, at eighteen, she’ll join a cult… she’ll nearly die… A cocaine habit will require partial reconstruction of her nose… and a series of feckless, domineering men will leave her solitary in her late twenties, trying to broker peace between Rolph and Lou, who will have stopped speaking.”
In an instant Charlie develops from a precocious young girl to a reckless, wayward adult. The writing is blunt, and at times, grippingly gritty. Egan pulls no punches. She’s not afraid to create characters that make your skin crawl, like the criminally prosecuted sex offender Jules Jones. She is also not afraid to humanize repulsive characters.
“When I’m writing about someone I’m not writing from the outside, a point of view that says ‘wow this person is really screwed up,’ I need to be deep enough inside that those choices make sense, even if they’re ugly choices,” said Egan.
The writer uses this method, employing empathy and extrapolating from her own experiences to create her lifelike characters.
The most compelling part of the novel is the peripheral view the reader occupies. Instead of being stuck inside the head of one neurotic character for the duration of the story, “Goon Squad” looks at a dozen people from the viewpoint of a variety of insightful minds.
Another complexity that enriches the stories is the contradictory nature of the characters. Scotty, a janitor in his middle-aged years, roams the streets of New York philosophizing.
“I understood what almost no one else seemed to grasp: that there was only an infinitesimal difference, a difference so small that it barely existed except as a figment of the human imagination, between working in a tall green glass building on Park Avenue and collecting litter in a park. In fact, there may be no difference at all.”
“I’m always fascinated by contradictions in people. That contradiction in Scotty is so poignant,” said Egan. “When he is confronted by his old friend who is clearly doing so much better than he is he is in a kind of anguish because his theory does not match what he is actually feeling.”
Perhaps, the only downfall of this book is that it leaves the reader desperately wanting more— a triumph for the writer.
“Some readers are frustrated because they want to know more about certain people. And the truth is that there were people that I wanted to write more about,” said Egan. “I really wanted to see Rolph as a young adult. I tried so hard to write a chapter about him in that period of his life, but it just didn’t work, so we’re left with what did work.”
At Hofstra, Egan hopes to discuss her writing process in detail. She will also be reading an excerpt from one of her works.