Jennifer Egan has produced in A Visit from the Goon Squad, a masterpiece of sorts, a collection of stories barely linked that are all fascinating and insightful. It reminds me of a similarly organized book, The Imperfectionists, which is also good for some of the same reasons – in both books the author has interesting characters dealing with a variety of problems. In the case of the Imperfectionists the connection is that all of the characters are linked in some way to the same newspaper. With the Goon Squad, the connection is a character, music producer Bennie Salazar. Some stories mention him only indirectly, others you would need a flow chart to be sure of how the characters relate to him. In fact one chapter is a PowerPoint presentation. But all in some way can be traced in some way to Bennie. This book is worth reading not just for the great prose but also for its interesting structure.
How did this book develop? Was the plan always to have a bunch of short stories connected, however loosely?Or did they start out as separate stories without the connection(s) to Bennie?
The book began as just one story — “Found Objects,” now chapter one — that I wrote as a way of procrastinating to avoid the novel I was supposed to be working on. That first story came easily, and seemed to suggest another; I was intrigued by the protagonist’s brief reference to her former boss, Bennie, who sprinkles gold flakes in his coffee and sprays pesticide in his armpits. At the time I threw in those details for laughs, to conjure up an ultra-decadent record producer. But I found myself thinking about Bennie later, wondering: Why would a person sprinkle gold flakes in his coffee and spray pesticide in his armpits? I mean, it’s “decadent” from the outside, but from the inside, there must be a logic to those actions. So I decided to write one more story, this time about Bennie, that would try to lay bare the logic of the gold and the pesticide.
And I found, to my surprise, that the new story naturally unfolded at an earlier time than “Found Objects,” and that Sasha — the protagonist of the first — was now a secondary character, still Bennie’s assistant, and rather opaque. All of that excited me: switching primary and secondary characters, moving backward in time. And after I wrote the second chapter, I found myself wondering about Bennie’s wife, Stephanie, who’s mentioned in passing…at that point I was hooked. And I accepted the fact that the other book was going to have to wait a few more years.
Put another way, do you view this as a novel or a collection of short stories?
I tried not to worry too much about those distinctions, because neither category seemed to really describe what I was trying to do. “Story collection” sounded too small and separate; “linked stories” conjured — for me anyway — the expectation that the stories would somehow be similar in voice in tone, while I was going exactly the opposite: as much range and variety as possible. And yet all that range and variety made “novel” seem wrong, too, because Goon Squad is so diverse, and without the central thrust of action that a novel has. Honestly, I think the genre it most closely resembles is a 70s concept album like Quadrophenia or Tommy or Ziggy Stardust…collections of smaller units that sound completely different from each other, yet fit together into one work of art.
Which characters are you most like, which are you least like? Did/do you have freckles? Which characters would you most enjoy spending time with in “real life”?
Hah! I do have freckles, but not enough to be ashamed of. I probably feel the greatest kinship to Bennie, but it isn’t that we’re alike (although I do have shame memories sometimes!) — it’s more like he’s my lovable, neurotic older brother or uncle or something. I admire Sasha for all that she managed to overcome, but I don’t identify with her in a deep way. I’d love to hang out with Stephanie, or Bosco, or Rhea. I do identify in some primal way with Charlie, Rolph’s sister — not that our stories are the same exactly, but I can’t read “Safari” aloud, I go to pieces at the end. Still, I wouldn’t say that Charlie and I are alike. The real ringer for me in Goon Squad, I think, is Alison, the teenage PowerPoint narrator. The watcher, the question-asker, the quasi-invisible witness — that’s always been my role.
How do you feel about the critical acclaim the book has received? Take, for example,this Washington Post review which says it is one of the three best books the reviewer has read this year.
I’ll take it! My other books have had more mixed reviews, and I expected the same for this one — I don’t think you can write strange, genre-less books that are completely different from what you’ve written before and expect the world to pat you on the head and give you a kiss (not that I don’t want that!!). Honestly, I’ve been surprised by how positive the reception for Goon Squad has been. I truly did not expect it. I was prepared for the This works but that doesn’t type of review. I think the wild card element was that people felt it worked well as one story. I’d read the material so many times, in so many different orders, I’d lost the power to judge that aspect.
Was there consideration of an idea, mentioned in that review, that I sort of like, namely having a music CD companion to the book? Did you listen to particular chosen music while writing this stories and, if so, what was it? Or did you maybe vary music choice based on which character you were writing about?
On my website, I mention some individual songs that were important and provide buy links to them, and I also created an 8 Tracks playlist. I don’t usually listen to music at all while I work, but that really changed during Goon Squad — music was the bridge I used to get me from one chapter to the next. I’m not a music-head in my real life, but music, and especially my memories of music — the ’70s San Francisco punk rock scene in particular — really infused the writing of this one. Music is such a great time-surfing device; it not only plunges you directly into earlier decades, but it often brings with it a sense of the textures of those decades — what I was wearing, and reading, and buying, and watching. I also loved revisiting that grunge moment in New York in the early 90’s, when I was living in the East Village and listening to a lot of Curve and wearing heavy boots. Since the iPod we’re more aware than ever of the time-music link; we literally swirl around in our own pasts on a daily basis, via songs.
Do you think there is a running theme going through all of the stories, such as time (the “Goon Squad” that it is?)
Time for sure — and its corollary: transformation. Also, as with all of my books, there’s an interest in technology and how — or if — it’s changing the human experience and the American experience But, overall, I’d have to say that this book is less theory-driven than my other work. I let it be peripatetic, and just tried to keep myself entertained.
On at least two occasions characters close their eyes and imagine doing something violent. Do you think like that? Should those who see you at book festivals be afraid or concerned if they see you close your eyes:)?
Hah again! You think I’d tell you if it were true? Actually, it’s not true. But I can easily imagine it being true. I can imagine anything, and the farther outside my own experience I’m forced to go, the more exhilarating it becomes. So I guess the truthful answer is: yes, I do close my eyes and see violence. But not as myself.
How did the idea for the PowerPoint section develop?
I’d been obsessed with using PowerPoint for a while, partly because I’d begun noticing how ubiquitous it was (though I myself had never used it), and partly because, since I’d decided that each of my chapters had to be different in every way from all the others, I was starting to run out of ideas for new ways to write fiction (I tried epic poetry, but it was a bust). Those factors drove me to buy the program and learn to use it. But once I got into writing “Great Rock and Roll Pauses” in PowerPoint, I realized that there were huge advantages to working in the program that I hadn’t foreseen: I could let the reader decide what order to read things in; I could concentrate on individual moments and let go of the connective tissue; I could represent pauses — or moments when time stops —visually. I think PowerPoint allowed me to reveal my deep preoccupations in this book in a more direct way than conventional narrative could have. And while I didn’t know it ahead of time, I think an instinctive sense that that might be true was what drove me to write in PowerPoint. I inserted the PowerPoint chapter at the very last minute, after the book was sold and scheduled. No one expected it. But I think Goon Squad would be a much less powerful book without it.
What are you working on next?
Well, honestly, I’m hoping to finally tackle that novel that got pushed to the side by Goon Squad. It’s a historical novel set in New York in the late 40s, involving women who work at the Brooklyn Navy yard building and repairing ships during World War II. It has waited patiently, and now its turn has hopefully come.
I always end my interview with what I call my bonus question – what question do you wish interviewers would ask that they always fail to ask? Here’s your chance to ask then answer it.
I don’t think anyone has asked me which was the hardest chapter to write, technically speaking. It actually wasn’t the PowerPoint, believe it or not, it was “Out of Body,” which is written in the second person. That is unbelievably hard to do, and I slaved and labored and sweated over that chapter. It was disastrous for a long time. And then — finally — the voice came to me.