Jennifer Egan on the 10th anniversary of A Visit From the Goon Squad and how it changed her life
Over a decade ago, Jennifer Egan had a fateful evening in a New York hotel. The author was working on what is now her most recent book, Manhattan Beach, and struggling to tackle the massive research needed for historical fiction of that caliber. She met her mother for dinner, used the ladies' room, and saw a wallet sticking out of a woman's bag.
Fans of her 2010 novel A Visit From the Goon Squad will recognize this scene. Egan looked down at the disembodied purse and thought to herself: I could take this wallet. And in that moment, the opening chapter of her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel began to take shape.
"I connected with the perspective of the person who steals," the author explains. "The holy grail is the perspective opposed to my own — I want to get as far away as I can. So I was excited by this wallet sighting and thought, tomorrow I'm going to start writing from this, and let's just see what happens."
That scene, of course, became the first chapter of Goon Squad — and the perspective of the person tempted to steal the wallet belongs to Sasha, one of the expansive novel's many protagonists. Egan didn't exactly mean to write an entire novel out of this exercise, but she found herself enjoying the material and followed the momentum from one chapter's story to the next. A reference in Sasha's initial chapter to a boss with a penchant for putting gold flakes in his coffee became record producer Benny's chapter, and a reference to Benny's ex-wife Stephanie bore out her point of view.
Goon Squad celebrates its 10th anniversary this month, a milestone that can often go unnoticed in the book world, at least compared to the more nostalgia-obsessed worlds of film and television. Chalk that up to the fact that novels have a longer shelf life than most pop culture, or simply because the sheer volume of beloved, high-quality books that are released every year makes it harder to track their life span. But Egan's masterpiece has hit a very specific nerve during its time in the world, whether critically (the Pulitzer, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the top spot on EW's own Best Books of the Decade) or culturally (there's still an epic wait time to check it out from the Libby app all this time later).
Much of the novel is still current — audiences will never stop marveling at stories of the 1970s San Francisco punk rock scene, or suburban marriages gone awry, and some of it feels oddly prescient in 2020. The obvious example of the latter being the final chapter, which imagines New York in what was, at the time of writing, the semi-distant future, but is actually 2019.
"It's funny, because it's not an exciting vision of the future," Egan says of her imagined not-exactly-dystopia. "A lot of it has been superseded by reality, so it reads more like verisimilitude. But one thing: Hurricane Sandy hadn't happened yet when I was writing, so it's still possible that we may end up with a wall [around New York] if we can't figure out the climate crisis."
It's nearly impossible to talk about A Visit From the Goon Squad without talking about Microsoft PowerPoint. There's a good chance it's the only novel to win a Pulitzer with a chapter written entirely in PowerPoint, and it could be the only novel with such a chapter, period. (If you've written a novel in PowerPoint, let us know.) While most of the book's original manuscript stayed intact throughout the publishing process, the slideshow was a late addition. Egan had attempted to use the format but was struggling with bringing it to fruition.
"It doesn't really lend itself to fiction, for a number of reasons," she says with a laugh. "I turned [the book] in without it, and it's not like anyone would have read it and said, 'Gee, if only there were a PowerPoint.'"
She began imagining a child's voice using the slideshow in a desert setting, and says it began to feel alive to her — the children began taking shape from her imagination, and she realized they felt like Sasha's children, who were mentioned during a leap forward earlier in the book. "It was so thrilling, and I'm grateful it worked out," she says of the chapter.
Once the book hit shelves (complete with PowerPoint), it struggled to find an audience. As Egan puts it, "It started bombing immediately." Egan, along with her team at Penguin RandomHouse, began to feel anxious. She's quick to point out that she wasn't paid a blockbuster advance, but her previous tome The Keep had been, by all accounts, a success. They began looking for something on which to cast blame. There was the book's categorization — Egan had been adamant not to label it as a novel, since it's quite technically a collection of elaborately connected short stories, but those labels help publishers market their books. And the title took some scapegoating as well: "Suddenly people on the team pointed out that they never really liked the title," Egan says, laughing.
They eventually rushed the paperback printing — set for early March, less than a year after the hardcover release — and that same month, A Visit From the Goon Squad won the Pulitzer.
"It felt like everything changed overnight," she says of the award. "We live in a world that cares so much about labels and status. So winning a prize, which is basically a matter of luck in that you have to please the right group of people at the right time, if you get that luck the result is this bizarrely iconic brand association that happens immediately."
Egan went on to publish Manhattan Beach — the novel she was researching when she pivoted to Goon Squad — in 2017, but she remains tethered to the characters of her 2010 book. In fact, she's currently writing what she describes as a companion volume to the work: A few characters reappear, and she's been thinking a lot about Goon Squad. How she arrived at the structure, how to find a way to write a book that relates to it, and how to improve upon that original conceit as opposed to drafting up a weaker version just for the novelty are all on her mind.
She says she hadn't even realized it had been a decade since the release of the novel until the request came in for this very interview, due mostly to the fact that it became successful (on paper) in 2011.
"It was a wonderful gift and a nice shot of excitement," Egan says of Goon Squad's placement at the top of EW's Best of the Decade list. "It came at a time when I'm revisiting those characters and actually following them now up to 2034. Maybe we'll talk again in 14 years and compare."