a visit from the goon squad by jennifer egan wins pulitzer

The Pulitzer Prize in Fiction was awarded today to A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, “an inventive investigation of growing up and growing old in the digital age, displaying a big-hearted curiosity about cultural change at warp speed.”

For more about A Visit From the Goon Squad on Catching Days:

~cross-posted at Contrary Blog

the squad: goon 3

Each chapter of Jennifer Egan‘s A Visit From the Goon Squad can stand alone as a story, but united, these chapters took my breath away. I got chills as I discovered yet another connection between them: Characters who age and reappear. Younger selves revealed. Shadows filled in. Events alluded to that come to pass. The language itself (Chapter 13 is called “Pure Language.)

The subject of time and what it does to us is threaded throughout Goon Squad. From Chapter 3: “Ask Me If I Care:”

Lou looks so happy, surrounded by his kids like any normal dad, that I can’t believe this Lou with us is the very same Lou.

From Chapter 5: “You (Plural):”

My questions all seem wrong: How did you get so old? Was it all at once, in a day, or did you peter out bit by bit?”

From Chapter 11: “Goodbye, My Love:”

“Let’s make sure it’s always like this.” Ted knew exactly why she’d said it…because she’d felt the passage of time.

From Chapter 13: “Pure Language:”

What he needed was to find fifty more people like him, who had stopped being themselves without realizing it.

And in that moment, the longing he’d felt for Sasha at last assumed a clear shape: Alex imagined walking into her apartment and finding himself still there—his young self, full of schemes and high standards, with nothing decided yet.

And the hum, always that hum, which maybe wasn’t an echo after all, but the sound of time passing.

In addition to time, A Visit From the Goon Squad is also about music. The book is divided into Side A and Side B, recalling 33s and 45s. The main character, Bennie Salazar, founded the Sow’s Ear record label. In my previous post, I quoted an excerpt that mentions, in the same paragraph, Bennie and a Jets game–a subtle reference to Elton John’s song.

Chapter 12 is Alison’s (the daughter of Sasha who worked for Bennie) power point presentation on “Great Rock and Roll Pauses.” This 75-page slide show is stunning in its juxtaposition of word restraint and emotional impact.

In addition to the surface, there’s below the surface, before the surface, after… From Chapter 6: “X’s and O’s:”

I’d said something literally, yes, but underneath that I’d said something else: we were both a couple of asswipes, and now only I’m an asswipe; why? And underneath that, something else: once and asswipe, always an asswipe. And deepest of all: You were the one chasing. But she picked me.

E. M. Forster wrote in Aspects of the Novel: “Music … does offer in its final expression a type of beauty which fiction might achieve in its own way … and when we have finished does not every item…lead a larger existence than was possible at the time?”

Final post in a series of three on Jennifer Egan’s award-winning novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad: first post and second post.

*cross-posted at The Contrary Blog

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

you gonna let that goon push you around?

As some of you may know from my recent post, last week, Jennifer Egan’s book, A Visit from the Goon Squad, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. This morning it was also long-listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction.

A Visit From the Goon Squad is brilliant. It’s not a novel in the traditional sense. The chapters can be read and appreciated as stand-alone pieces. In fact, four have been published that way: “Selling the General” in the anthology This Is Not Chick Lit published in 2006; and three in The New Yorker: “Found Objects” (Chapter 1) in the December 10, 2007 issue, “Safari” (Chapter 4) in the January 11, 2010 issue, and “Ask Me If I Care” (Chapter 3) in the March 8, 2010 issue.

In her review in The New York Times, Janet Maslin is unsure whether the book is “a novel, a collection of carefully arranged interlocking stories or simply a display of Ms. Egan’s extreme virtuosity.” In an interview on Selected Shorts, Jennifer Egan referred to sections of her book as stories and also as chapters of a longer book.

Regardless of their severability, when read as pieces of a longer work, they shine–oh, they shine. Like separate parts of the universe talking to each other.

The chapters move backward and forward, and part of the pleasure of reading each one is to figure out where we are in time. From Chapter 13: “Pure Language:”

Time’s a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?

And there are sufficient clues—dates, ages, references to events we’ve read about in other chapters—that the reader enjoys the challenge and never feels frustrated. And after all we should struggle with time, for that is the subject of the book. Time. Who we were then, who we are now, and how we got from there to here—from side A to side B.

From Chapter 7: “A to B:”

The album’s called A to B, right? Bosco said. “And that’s the question I want to hit straight on: how did I go from being a rock star to being a fat fuck no one cares about? Let’s not pretend it didn’t happen.

In the same Selected Shorts interview, Egan said, “And one of the principles of the longer book is that each chapter had to be written in a very different way technically from all the others.”

Because each of the chapters has its own separate sound, when they all play together, the result is the answer to E. M. Forster’s question in Aspects of the Novel:

Is there any effect in novels comparable to the effect of the Fifth Symphony as a whole, where, when the orchestra stops, we hear something that has never actually been played?

Brilliant.

The first in a series of posts on A Visit From the Goon Squad. For the second post, click Pure Egan.

cross-posted at The Contrary Blog

dear latimes: this is a photo of Jennifer Egan

Dear Los Angeles Times,

Regarding your headlines* today on the National Book Critics Circle Awards, the photo you posted is not Jennifer Egan. In addition, I would also like to point out that you mention the name of Mr. Franzen’s novel, the one that didn’t win but it’s true was written by a male, while you merely allude to the novel that in fact won the award as “work.” Granted, A Visit From the Goon Squad has more words in it, but it did win. May I suggest the following changes:

Egan Wins National Book Critics Circle’s fiction prize

Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad bests Jonathan Franzen’s work. The nonfiction award goes to ‘The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.’

Sincerely,

Cynthia

*

cross-posted on The Contrary Blog

rock stars (plural) at awp

Get ready for some name-dropping rock star highlights from awp 2011 in Washington DC: running into Josh Ritter in the bar Wednesday night…ricotta pancakes with sour cherries Thursday morning…sitting behind Jennifer Egan on Saturday and hearing her read “You (Plural)” from A Visit From the Goon Squadseeing the millions of real live books on the book fair tables…listening to Josh Ritter give his first reading and listening to him sing…a nice, long visit with Robin Black…dinner in Adams Morgan with Benjamin Percy and Pam Houston, and Fenton Johnson and Pam Houston…seeing all my VCFA friends and wonderful conversations with Dave JaussSue Silverman, Patrick Maddenlunch with my niece and a friend, listening to Charles Baxter on book reviews “to say a book is boring does not say anything about the book; it says something about the reader”… Elizabeth Cox on the dialogue in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”…Jill McCorkle: “She’d a been a good writer if there’d been somebody standing there with a red pen her whole life”…Richard Bausch on Hemingway edits…quick visits with Sheri Reynolds, Hannah Tinti, Maribeth BatchaBruce Machart, Robin Oliveira, Tony EprileEllen Lesser, Richard McCann, Vivian DorselRobin HemleyConnie May Fowlergoing to the book fair again and again and seeing all the millions of real books out there in the world, meeting in person Mike Curtis, Cornelius Eady, Lucy Corin, Richard Peabody, Megan Sexton, Matt Bell, Diane Goettel …books, bookmarks, buttons, and more…