Yesterday’s roundtable discussion in the Hopwood Room found Jennifer Egan packing the room as effectively as the rockers she writes about in her latest novel, “A Visit from the Goon Squad.”
Egan’s work has resonated with everyone, from the Master of Fine Arts students and smattering of Ann Arbor residents who crowded yesterday’s roundtable discussion, to even the 2011 Pulitzer Prize Board that bestowed “Goon Squad” with one of most coveted prizes in literature. The famed author was invited as part of the Zell Visiting Writers Series to make three public appearances at the University this week, culminating in a lecture this afternoon at the University of Michigan Museum of Art.
Despite having written “Goon Squad” with a middle-aged demographic in mind, the book has a punk-rock sensibility that makes it appealing for a wider audience than just parents and literary gatekeepers. Modern and quirky storytelling distinguishes the sprawling novel, and nearly every character is fleshed out and connected to all the others. Egan proves her fluency in text-speak in one section. Another chapter is entirely in PowerPoint — and despite the average student’s natural aversion to PowerPoint presentations, the effect is striking, only one of Egan’s many literary tricks that make the novel hard to categorize.
“So it’s a constellation of stories that all interact together,” Egan said in an interview with The Michigan Daily, explaining the difficulty of capturing “Goon Squad” ’s unique texture when trying to describe the novel. “It’s basically like a concept album.”
Rock‘n’roll and the music business act as backdrops in the novel, though ironically Egan said these days she mostly just listens to music while running. She said she isn’t the music connoisseur people assume she is after reading the lyrical “Goon Squad.” Rather, music is integral to the main characters’ lives and to the novel itself, which grapples with the passage of time, highlighted by the rapidly changing music business.
“The teenage years or early 20s is a time when people often engage with music as a way of kind of defining themselves, and I was really interested in that moment,” she said of music’s pivotal role in the novel.
Raised in San Francisco when the 1970s punk rock scene was flourishing — a beat that almost audibly pulses throughout “Goon Squad” — Egan went on a pivotal solo trip to Europe at 18 years old with nothing but a backpack and a Eurail pass. She came back knowing she wanted to be a writer.
Decades later, Egan has written countless short stories that have appeared in publications like The New Yorker and Harpers Magazine. She has also penned her own short story collection and three other critically acclaimed novels. She informed the roundtable audience yesterday that her childhood dream was to be an investigative journalist in the same vein as Harriet the Spy, so it’s no wonder she also stumbled into journalism when doing research for her novel “Look at Me,” and has had reporting articles in publications like The New York Times Magazine.
And though Egan claims she wanted to “avoid a real job” in order to focus on writing, her discipline and willingness to do desk work while moonlighting as a novelist are what made writing become her real, full-time job.
“You’ve got to put food on the table, that’s not a question,” Egan said of her post-graduation life working various office jobs in New York City. But Egan stayed focused on becoming a writer, describing that period as “office slave work.”
“Some people feel so demoralized not having a job with some prestige, that for them it’s really not workable to feel so marginal,” she said. “I mean, to be a temp in New York — talk about a conversation killer at a cocktail party.”
While trying to make it as a writer in the Big City may seem like a pipe dream to graduates who are being foisted into today’s economy, Egan said the best advice she could give is to be consistently writing, even if it’s consistently bad.
Egan emphasized that her own hard-knock lifestyle of daytime grunt work and constant writing and rewriting isn’t for everyone.
“Basically, you have to find what feeds you and try to set up the nuts and bolts of a workable life.”