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Proust and Punk: Jennifer Egan, 'A Visit from the Goon Squad,' at Politics and Prose

Ten years ago, Jennifer Egan had a bag stolen containing her keys and wallet. A few days later, she received a phone call from the thief, “who did an excellent imitation of a Citibank employee trying to help me after the theft,” the novelist explains. “She got me to give her my PIN number, at which point she not only drained but overdrew my checking account.”

That incident stuck with Egan, not only because it was upsetting or mortifying, but mainly because it made her see the world, if only briefly, from a point of view very different from her own. “After it became clear that she was the thief, I found myself again and again returning to our phone conversation and wondering about her life: Who is she? Why did she do that?”

That act of adopting strange perspectives drives Egan’s fiction, from her award-winning 2001 novel “Look at Me” to her 2006 bestseller “The Keep.” And that incident — the stolen wallet, the conversation with the thief — a decade later became the impetus for her twisty-turny novel “A Visit From the Goon Squad.”

“A Visit From the Goon Squad” is full of such alien points of view. Formally playful but deeply attuned to its characters and their crises, the novel opens with a similar wallet theft, this time by a klepto record-label employee named Sasha. After describing her blind date in the first chapter, Egan switches to Sasha’s eccentric boss, a former San Francisco punk named Bennie Salazar who now runs a large New York label.

“First I wrote about Sasha, and that led me to be curious about Bennie, because she mentions him in passing,” Egan says. “He sounds like a wack job, with his pesticide deodorant and his gold flakes.” (He sprinkles them in his coffee.)

Each chapter of “Goon Squad” presents a different set of characters loosely connected to the previous set; it’s a novel as record album, hinting at a larger narrative as it moves from song to song, from subject to subject. “Like an album,” Egan explains, “each story stands really solidly on its own legs, yet contributes to a broader vision in a vital way.”

Egan writes convincingly about the music industry of the 2000s, which has been in a freefall due to changing technology and fragmented audiences, but the novel’s most compelling chapters evoke a far different time — the San Francisco punk scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s. As teenagers, Bennie and his friends form a band called the Flaming Dildos and insinuate themselves into the local scene, wearing the properly ripped clothes, sporting the right hairstyles, and hanging around the famous Mabuhay Gardens, which Egan describes as a “hallowed, much storied punk venue, kind of like the CBGB’s of San Francisco.”

Egan drew from her own experiences growing up in the city, but insists these sections aren’t necessarily autobiographical. “I was in high school at the time,” she explains. “I saw most of the bands that are mentioned, but I wasn’t a punk rocker. The characters aren’t either, but I was even less so that they are, in the sense that I never made any serious commitments like dyeing my hair. But it was an interesting, vibrant scene, and I feel like I got near it and it was fun to recollect that so many years later.”

In general, Egan is less interested in telling her own story than she is in describing the world from her own point of view. In fact, she had trouble writing those early chapters because she couldn’t find a voice suitably different from her own.

“I feel very stymied whenever I feel like whatever I’m writing about overlaps at all with my own life,” she explains. “Landing solidly in the character of Rhea, the narrator, was very important. She’s nothing like me. I truly made her up. Finding a person who is so different but who I can relate to and whose voice I enjoy writing in, that’s always 90 percent of it, no matter what I’m writing.”

Remarkably, the novel’s constant shifting of points of view enrich these characters rather than truncate them, especially as Egan glimpses their pasts and futures through the eyes of their friends, co-workers, and families. Especially during a long chapter written entirely in PowerPoint, it’s an impressive performance that slyly reimagines what a novel can do and how a reader can interact with it. Fittingly, that approach underscores Egan’s larger ideas about music and nostalgia, which she based as much on Proust as punk.

“Time and music intersect in such a deep way,” says Egan. “As each of us knows from our own lives, music has the ability to cut through time and make the years fall away like nothing else. There’s nothing else more powerful than the feeling you had when you fell in love with a certain kind of music as a teenager.”

» EXPRESS: Did writing this book change the way you listen to music in general or certain artists in particular?
» EGAN: Not really. I was listening to music while I was working, which is very unusual for me. I usually like total silence because I tend to hear things as I’m writing. I’m very attuned to the rhythms and the sounds of the language, and so I don’t like having another beat in my head. However, while working on this, I found that listening to music was somehow oddly essential, I guess because there would be certain songs that I thought just captured the mood of certain chapters. It was a way of helping me define where I was and what I was doing at particular moments. They weren’t even songs that were necessarily from the period I was writing about. I listened to a lot of Nada Surf. They’re a contemporary alternative band, but there’s something sort of ’70s and mournfully nostalgic about them in a way that I found really useful. So yes, I think briefly my relationship to music changed, but I don’t know that it changed things permanently.

» EXPRESS: Music and time are such big themes in “Goon Squad,” but technology seems equally important.
» EGAN: I’ve been interested in technology and mass media and their relationship to private life for a really long time. I think that’s a throughline in my work right from the very beginning, and I think I keep looking at it from different angles each time. With this one, there were all kinds of things that I was thinking about in terms of technology — how the move into the digital is impacting. One thing that’s interesting and has been pointed out a few times — and I think it has some merit — is that the book has a lateral, almost crablike way of moving, so that we start with someone and then someone else catches our eye. There’s an Internet quality to that movement, but I wasn’t thinking of that consciously at all. I’m not really a Web-savvy or Web-addicted person, I wouldn’t say, but I think there may be something to that idea.

» EXPRESS: In some ways the minor characters almost act as links. You can almost click on them and pull up new pages and new lives.
» EGAN: I never thought of it in terms of clicking. I did have a pop-culture model in my mind; it just wasn’t the Internet. The thematic inspiration is all Proust, but I loved the show “The Sopranos,” which I found very novelistic in a lot of ways. And some of the things that I ended up trying to do in “Goon Squad” were things that I decided I wanted to try to do while watching that show. First, I thought the show was so brilliant in alternating in a tricky, playful way between public and private life, between cliches and private nuance. Tony Soprano is a total thug in a way that’s almost cliched, and yet we’re catapulted into his inner life and can see that he’s very individual and distinct. I was fascinated by that dialectic. And I loved the way minor characters, whom we’d just pigeonholed in various ways, would suddenly become available to us in a much more intimate way for a season or two. I wanted to try that.

» EXPRESS: Was it difficult writing a chapter in PowerPoint?
» EGAN: The big challenge of that chapter was the question of why a story would be told in PowerPoint, because it’s a very dry, corporate tool. I didn’t want a dry, corporate feeling in any part of my book. So the real questions were “Who was using PowerPoint?” and “Why?” Once I had answered that question — that it was a 12-year-old and this was the way she keeps her journal — then the form really opened up for me.

» EXPRESS: Did you have to teach yourself to use the program?
» EGAN: I sure did. I didn’t even own PowerPoint. In fact, I didn’t even have enough memory on my computer to buy PowerPoint. My first attempt was trying to write a presentation on legal pad by hand, without actually owning PowerPoint. I didn’t get too far with that, let me tell you. But I really need to read in a genre before I can use it effectively, and that meant reading a lot of corporate documents and seeing how they used the charts and graphs graphics to convey information. So my education was just that — understanding how any narrative is broken down into slides and then thinking really hard about how to do it in fiction. It was fun. I feel like I was fluent for a day. It’s always nice to master something, whatever it is.

» Politics & Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW; Mon., June 28, 7 p.m., free; 202-364-1919. (Van Ness-UDC)

Written by Express contributor Stephen M. Deusner
Photo by Pieter M. Van Hattem

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