Pure Egan

In her selected shorts interview, Jennifer Egan talked about how, years ago, she abandoned a story because she couldn’t find any way to rein in the material. Well, in A Visit From the Goon Squad, Egan is the master of compression.

In Chapter 1, she creates a shortcut based on a time period idiosyncratic to the story.

Prewallet, Sasha had been in the grip of a dire evening: lame date (yet another) brooding behind dark bangs, sometimes glancing at the flat-screen TV, where a Jets game seemed to interest him more than Sasha’s admittedly overhandled tales of Bennie Salazar, her old boss, who was famous for founding the Sow’s Ear record label and who also (Sasha happened to know) sprinkled gold flakes into his coffee—as an aphrodisiac, she suspected—and sprayed pesticide in his armpits.

Later in the story, she uses the term postwallet. These terms cut down on word bulk, making the story tighter. Egan will use such a shortcut again in Chapter 4, “Safari,”—postcoffee.

Also in “Safari,” Egan uses a technique that she herself specifically referred to in the interview as a shortcut:

It’s Cora, Lou’s travel agent. She hates Mindy, but Mindy doesn’t take it personally—it’s Structural Hatred, a term she coined herself and is finding highly useful on this trip. A single woman in her forties who wears high-collared shirts to conceal the thready sinews of her neck will structurally despise the twenty-three-year-old girlfriend of a powerful male who not only employs said middle-aged female but is paying her way on this trip.

On the next page, Egan uses the terms Structural Resentment, Structural Affection, Structural Incompatibility, and Structural Desire. The use of these terms is also brilliant characterization of Mindy:

And keeping Lou’s children happy, or as close to happy as is structurally possible, is part of Mindy’s job.”

Later in this story, Egan will use the term Structural Dissatisfaction, threading the shortcut throughout the chapter and reinforcing the coherent fictional world she is creating in this particular story.

In this same chapter, Egan again shows how quickly a character’s life can be told by connecting it to an image. Here, she shapes the key elements of Lou’s past into a contrail, short itself for condensation trail, the artificial cloud line created by the exhaust of an airplane:

Lou is one of those men whose restless charm has generated a contrail of personal upheaval that is practically visible behind him: two failed marriages and two more kids back home in LA, who were too young to bring on this three-week safari. This safari is a new business venture of Lou’s old army buddy, Ramsey, with whom he drank and misbehaved, having barely avoided Korea almost twenty years ago.

Pure Egan.

Second post in a series of three on Jennifer Egan’s award-winning novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad. For the first post, click here.

cross-posted at The Contrary Blog

9 thoughts on “Pure Egan

  1. Pingback: Pure Egan — Contrary Blog

  2. I am right about in the middle of this and I am mesmerized. It’s strange to me that in the odd excitement/dread/sadness that’s now leading up to the publication of THE PALE KING, I discover Egan — an answer for me to the space left after DFW’s unexpected departure. She is the first author I’ve read since DFW to challenge and delight me with structure. Each time I pick up this book there is a tingle of anticipation that no book has made me feel in some time. Everything is new again.

  3. I’ve read everything she’s written. All hits and no misses. What’s more, I can read her work again and again which is something I never thought I’d do — read a book more than once unless I was studying it — because with so many books and so little time, it just seems insane. But she’s THAT GOOD. And she keeps getting better, though her earlier work by no means pales in comparison. LOOK AT ME is genius. It was shortlisted for the National Book Award. I could easily pick her up any one of her books or short stories and read it all over again. And yet, as much as I love Morrison’s Beloved and Faulks’s Birdsong, I wouldn’t necessarily want to revisit them any time soon. I don’t know why. Can’t put my finger on what Egan does. If you finish that chart, Cynthia, I’d love to see it. I’m too mesmerized to see the mechanics behind the magic, but I’m definitely curious.

    This was a really interesting article. Aside from the “structural” motif, I have to admit I didn’t notice the others.

    • Ange, welcome to Catching Days and thanks for your wonderful comment and recommendations. I have not read any other of Egan’s books but have heard from several readers how good LOOK AT ME is. I will have to add her other books to my list. I hope you’ll be back.

    • Got my packet off, so catching up on things… I loved Safari too, but the stories add up to so much more read together in order in the book. When you get to it, I’d love to know what you think.

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