Handwritten Experiments

The first time that I heard the name ‘Jennifer Egan’ and it stuck was in a writing class – someone in the class had called to attention her habit of handwriting first drafts of fiction. With an affinity for pen and paper myself (five-year-olds are more dexterous on a keyboard than I am), I made a mental note to check out her work. I knew little beyond this tidbit about Egan, although I learned quickly that she received a Pulitzer for A Visit from the Goon Squad. That seemed as good a place to start as any.

When I first started reading this work (I use the word “work” to avoid terms that aren’t really applicable, namely “novel” or “short story collection”), I didn’t fully grasp what I had gotten myself into. I soon discovered that A Visit from the Goon Squad is a series of linked narratives. Some people might refer to it as a short story collection since each chapter is a standalone unit (I actually reached one of the chapters, “Out of Body,” and realized I had already read it as a selection in The Best American Short Stories 2011). But that basic characterization does not capture the complexity of Egan’s work. Each story has a character that you have seen before or that has been mentioned before, often in another place and time. I can sense the skepticism that my description might be eliciting right now: I myself was skeptical, particularly when I was flipping through the book and noticed there’s a PowerPoint slide chapter. That’s right, I mean exactly what I said – instead of paragraphs of text, there is an entire chapter that is composed exclusively of PowerPoint slides. I’m all about being “experimental” and “different,” but I become wary when I sense that an author is about to try too hard to be original. I find that such labors often become inaccessible.

My fear was unfounded. A Visit from the Good Squad is an amazing feat of literature – despite my trepidations that the masses of characters would be hard to follow, I found that I often remembered where I had seen people before, and even if it was hazy, the stories often didn’t require me to recall much of anything (Jennifer Egan is emphatic about this point in interviews about the book). And I truly enjoyed the PowerPoint chapter. I have no idea how Egan pulled that one off, but she did. If that achievement alone is not enough to inspire you to check out this book, then perhaps the subject matter is – Jennifer Egan’s stories are linked not only by characters, but also by such universal and engaging themes as music and the passage of time.

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