It’s no shock that first Jennifer Egan book I read was A Visit from the Goon Squad. Her previous three novels had their fans, of course, but Goon Squad was something of a sensation, a must-read even before it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Simultaneously deeply felt and rambunctiously deconstructionist in execution, the novel is impactful, less because of any elements of its plot (or overlapping plots, depending on how one looks at it) and more due to its vividness of emotion and wonderfully wooly ideas. I don’t remember about the chapter “Great Rock and Roll Pauses by Alison Blake,” but it certainly sticks with me that it’s rendered as a fully convincing PowerPoint presentation. And it’s engaging to a degree that far exceeds usual instances of such formatting tomfoolery. Other authors easily get bogged down in the gimmickry of the technique, but Egan makes it an avenue into keeping her fiction fiercely connected to the moment.
I started with Goon Squad, but the book that put me in awe of Egan’s talents was the next one she released: Manhattan Beach. The novel is structurally and creatively about as far from its award-winning predecessor as is reasonably possible from the same author. A story of family hardship and seedy crime around the years of World War II, the book is meticulously researched, its details interlaced with the pure fiction in a way that properly heightens the authenticity. Again, Egan artfully achieves a feat that is often clumsy in other hands. The researched material is ever-present, but not in a manner that signals a desperation to employ all the outside reading. Instead, it’s there in way that feel as true as the casualness with which the names of apps or websites or perpetrators of political dismay are invoked today. Egan understands how the components of society become part of the pattern on the fabric of life.
Much as I adore these novels, there may be nothing more valuable about Egan’s current contributions as a writer than her commitment to pursuing assignments away from the comfort of fiction. As the studious approach to Manhattan Beach suggests, she has a journalist’s empathy and instincts, recently demonstrated by a lengthy cover story on the opioid epidemic for The New York Times Magazine. Plenty of novelists give non-fiction writing a spin from time to time, but it’s often in the form of observational essays or personal reminiscence, keeping them in the safety of drawing on little more than their own notions. Egan went out and reported, having tough conversations with people in pain. Basically, Egan does what anyone with her talents should do: She finds the stories that need to be told and writes them.
Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “My Writers” tag.