‘I wonder whether the will to expose is a palliative to shame’ – An Interview with Jennifer Egan, author of A Visit from the Goon Squad
“I’ve been robbed a lot,” says American writer Jennifer Egan when I ask how she got started on A Visit from the Goon Squad. “A woman once phoned me posing as a Citibank employee and asked for my pin number, which I gave to her. Afterwards, when I’d stopped being frantic about having no money, I asked, ‘Who was she? Why was she doing that?’ Years later, I saw this wallet sitting on the sink in a hotel restroom. I was intrigued and that connected with those questions: Who? Why? My books start with a time, a place: 2006/07, New York, a nice hotel, a woman who takes a wallet. I didn’t know who she would be or what she would be like or why she would do it.”
The woman became Sasha, the kleptomaniac protagonist of the opening chapter, who reappears on the peripheries as the narrative shifts between a group of interconnected characters across half a century. While she was writing, Egan didn’t think of her fifth book as a novel, regarding it instead as a series of overlapping stories.
“I feel a little uncomfortable with people calling it a novel,” she says. “I’m happy for readers to say it’s a novel but I wouldn’t want those who perceive it that way to be disappointed.”
Disappointment is an unlikely reaction. Published to rave reviews and winner of the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award, Goon Squad establishes Egan in the first rank of contemporary American novelists. Her debut, Emerald City, appeared in 1993 and her excellent last novel, The Keep was, like Goon Squad, nominated for the Orange Prize. Before that, she served a gruelling apprenticeship and, as she tells me about the years of hardship and self-doubt, I remember a line. “We’re the survivors,” says Sasha, so how does Egan view the relationship between writing and survival?
“They feel very intertwined. I feel about writing in a drastic, elemental way, that it is essential for me. When I decided to do it I was in Europe, having taken a year off before university. I had a really hard time. My family life was falling apart, I started having what would now be called panic attacks. That degree of extremity made me feel a deep, ferocious attachment to writing that I hadn’t recognised before.”
Her protagonists talk of New York as somewhere effervescent young people embark on heady adventures. But the nature of her own experience, after she arrived in 1987, is better captured by a character in an early story who says the city, ‘glittered in the distance even when you had reached it.’
“New York felt like a test of the highest order. I had basically nothing except this horrible book I’d written, that I thought was great, and some really misguided assumptions about how easy it would be to set myself up. I pretty much had to work all the time so the question was, When am I going to write? and Why do I think I can when everyone hates my work? I was a secretary for this abusive boss, really tough and cruel. When I look back at what I was willing to put up with to keep this going it feels like survival. That sounds dramatic but it’s survival in a metaphorical way and for my middle-class existence it felt extreme and tenuous. I don’t recall ever wavering in my determination.”
Egan’s early New York experiences differed from her characters’ because, as she says, “I’m constantly moving away from myself in my writing.” However, there’s a striking amount of broken families in Goon Squad – two of my favourite passages involve sons moving away from their fathers – and I wonder why.
“I write pretty unconsciously so to some extent the answer is, ‘I don’t know.’ But my parents divorced when I was two-years-old, I have no memory of them together. My father remained in Chicago and I moved to San Francisco with my mother. There is certainly a sense of longing for a male figure who is never quite there that is very familiar to me.”
“Time’s a goon,” says one character and, if the book has a single theme, it’s time. But Goon Squad is also suffused with longing.
“Longing runs through all my work. My first novel, The Invisible Circus, was about a girl whose sister commits suicide. She’s awash in longing for her sister and for a better version of herself which I think a lot of longing is about. Moving from central to peripheral with the characters in Goon Squad was a chance to play with that in a new, more lively, multi-angled way. I’m also interested in a corollary of longing that can be a projection we use to try to demystify figures who are unknown to us. ”
We feel deeply for Egan’s characters but they remain slightly elusive. For example, aspects of Bennie, the record producer who appears in a number of chapters, remain unresolved.
“Yes, there’s the question of his ethnic past. We know he’s none-white but we don’t actually know what he is. Writing teachers say, ‘You better know everything about your characters,’ but I actually don’t on this occasion. Bennie’s one of those Americans who has erased his past – there are lots of them – and I was comfortable letting him do that. The characters are a little mysterious to each other and I don’t understand them completely. My deep knowledge of them is less than it usually is about my characters. I don’t know why.”
How much we can and can’t know one another is a consistent theme in Egan’s work. Glimpses into other lives fire her curiosity. Is this one of the reasons why she writes fiction?
“I think so. I’m basically nosey. I would like to know everything about everyone. I walk around, look at a person and I can’t get enough of them. I’m continually amazed at the thought that they have a whole life attached to them. It’s sort of shocking. How can the earth can hold it all? I remember riding in the car as a little kid, looking at lighted up windows, thinking, ‘I wish I could go in there for a second. I’d like to see what that room looks like. What’s in the refrigerator? What’s in the closet? What’s in the bathroom cupboard?’ No detail is too fine. It’s all so interesting, especially because it’s not me. I think this is a difference between me and some writers who are most interested in rendering that level of detail about their own experience.
“Quick views of someone you never get to know are so evocative. The back page of the Village Voice used to list notices, like personal ads, for people who had glimpsed each other. ‘You: red sweater, waiting in line…’ I found them so provocative. It was local news at its best, so wistful, so suggestive and there was some hope that they might find each other. I loved the thought of brief moments. I would read them and imagine these two people seeing each other and wonder, ‘What became of them? Was it mutual?’”
That sense of wonder at our fleeting encounters might sound rare, even anachronistic in the age of social media. As one character puts it, “Everyone we’ve lost, we’ll find. Or they’ll find us… Pretty soon it’ll seem strange that you could ever lose someone, or get lost.” Is there a connection between certain technologies and the shame which a number of protagonists negotiate in Goon Squad?
“The self-revealing moment that we’re living in – when people are narrating their daily lives for gigantic audiences – makes me feel ashamed. I don’t think there is a lot of shame right now and I’m curious about why. It seems that exposure nullifies shame. I wonder whether the will to expose is a palliative to shame. That’s an interesting question. I feel squirmy at the thought of people knowing where I am, what I’m doing. I have a Twitter account that I never use. The line of communication where I proffer up nuggets of my experience for popular consumption induces in me a feeling of shame. Clearly it doesn’t in lots of other people.”
Events in recent history, such as the banking crisis, the atrocities committed at home and abroad by the previous American government, have been characterised by shamelessness. But the atmosphere of Goon Squad is less the unqualified doom of the Bush years than the dashed hopes that can come with more sympathetic administrations. Egan was born in 1962, during John F Kennedy’s brief presidency, so do her characters’ disappointments reflect the failure of liberal politicians to meet high expectations?
“To a certain degree, yes. With Obama it seems too early to analyse. Many people feel his political skills have been less manifest in office than in the election, although he’s actually done some great things that now may be undone. Passing a national health bill in America is huge. Under Clinton, who is mentioned in this book, the Lewinsky scandal was proof that the figures who we invest our lofty hopes in are subject to the same whims as the rest of us. But the real horror of recent US history lies firmly at the door of the Republicans. I date that back to Reagan. We didn’t have homeless people until he came into office. We will be sorting through the wreckage of George W Bush’s crimes for the rest of my life and the rest of my children’s lives.”
Goon Squad is populated by complex figures and Scottie, who we encounter as a teenage punk in 1970s San Francisco, then as an alienated, Jagermeister-guzzling janitor in twenty-first century Manhattan, has an ambivalent relationship with shame.
“Scottie’s aware of being left out and he’s trying to bolster himself with self-justification. The irony might be that ultimately value can be placed on his disconnection. The question of how much we give up for our connections has been strangely unexamined. Any hope of privacy is gone. To be in the gigantic, uniform apartment block of Facebook we sacrifice any kind of real separateness. All our personal information is out there with companies that are valuable because they know everything about their clients. That’s scary. Scottie’s left out but at the same time he’s held on to something that everyone else has given up. I was trying to explore that paradox.”
There’s something of the insider/outsider paradox about Jennifer Egan. You’d never guess that she’d struggled but she’s such a thoughtful, open interviewee that I see how her early determination flowed towards her present success. She talks about writing for the New York Times Magazine with familiarity and reverence, like a long time contributor who once dreamed of getting in. She’s a serious, prolific journalist and hopefully we will one day see her articles collected, but fiction is clearly her thing. The sense that her characters’ lives continue beyond this book is devastatingly acute.
“I’m actually working on a new piece now that involves a character from Goon Squad,” she says.
I’m desperate to ask which one, but I mustn‘t because everybody will have different hopes at this exciting news.
“It’s so open-ended. I like the idea of not leaving these characters behind completely. I feel like I need a little bit more distance from talking about this book though. My books are so different from each other. Throwing off the habit of one book is part of the challenge of entering into a new one. But I have the feeling too, why does it have to end?”
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- April 11, 2011 / 5:42 am