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Egan's 'Goon Squad' takes readers on a stylish trip

| Sunday, July 4, 2010

There's no link between what Jennifer Egan writes about in her fiction and her real life. Nor does she create characters from chance meetings in grocery stores or at parties, surreptitiously piecing together a persona as if she's a literary Dr. Frankenstein.

"I have a harder time if I have met them in real life," Egan says. "I find that negotiation difficult. They seem to leap into my mind in a way I can't understand myself. Usually, interestingly, I begin with a place and a mood more than I begin with people. People tend to emerge out of place and mood."

Thus, Egan's new novel, "A Visit From the Goon Squad," was generated in part by the author's fascination with the aftermath of the punk-rock era, specifically in San Francisco, where she was raised. Egan, the author of novels including "The Keep" and "The Invisible Circus," also exhumed some past fictions and retrofitted them for her new book. Four of the chapters in "A Visit ..." were previously published as stand-alone short stories.

"I found that all of those people in those stories had lingered in my mind, and I wondered if there was some way to revisit them or deal with them again," Egan says. "In the end, this book became a chance to do that."

The interconnected stories are anchored by Bennie Salazar, a record-company mogul who once was a Mohawk-ed musician in a punk band but in the present day sprinkles gold flakes into his coffee and sprays pesticide on his arm pits. From that brief sketch, Egan decided she wanted to know more about Salazar, how he got to this point in his life where weirdness was part of his daily routine.

"I really wasn't thinking of anything but breaking open a cliche I wanted to understand," she says, "and out of this came this guy I was just nuts about. I just loved writing about him.

Other characters also developed from minor traits or quirks. Sasha, Bennie's personal assistant, was merely a woman who stole a purse before she created a backstory for the character. "I knew I had a hotel bathroom and a wallet, and someone was going to take it," Egan says.

Other characters, notably Lou, a priapic music producer with an appetite for young women, make multiple appearances, emerging only as Egan worked on the narrative.

"The physical act of writing causes me to discover what's on my mind," she says.

As the characters flit in and out of the novel's 13 chapters, there's a sense the multiple narratives are simultaneously taking place, even as some characters are absent. For Egan, the effect was as if her brain was "a crowded neighborhood, where people were in their separate homes, doing separate things, and I could only be in one home at a time," she says. "But I was aware of the other homes and wondering what was going on there."

A little more than 40 years elapses during the course of the linked narratives, including one section in the future that has the feel of a Margaret Atwood novel, where babies and toddlers become the arbiters of musical taste. But the most stunning part of the book comes by way of a section that is composed in PowerPoint. It's an audacious gambit, one that might seem initially jarring, especially because Egan's writing is so affecting.

Egan insists she could not make the story work without using PowerPoint as the medium by which Stephanie, Sasha's daughter, tells her story. She also thinks that experimentation suits the form of the novel, and that it has historical precedent.

Egan feels there's an "amnesia" about the origin of novels, pointing to Cervantes' "Don Quixote" and Laurence Sterne's "Tristram Shandy" as examples of the form's initial penchant for deviating from strictly narrative storytelling.

" 'Tristram Shandy' is full of nutty graphic stuff," Egan says, "and I promise you if PowerPoint had existed, Sterne would have used it. Because, at that point, the idea was this inventive, crazy form, but somewhere we along the way we got derailed from that, and it became this idea that 'experimental' novels are crazy and play with form and 'conventional' novels do a good, solid job of telling a story. I think both of those routes are unappealing, as a reader, because sheer experimentation is boring, and sheer convention is boring. Why separate them• They started out together, they should stay together, and I don't think I've done anything new here that Laurence Sterne didn't do."

Additional Information:

Capsule review

Jennifer Egan's 'A Visit from the Goon Squad' is a literary striptease, a novel that is slowly unveiled in short, illuminating passages. Egan writes with great verve and insight about the characters, many of them part of San Francisco's punk music scene in the early '80s. 'A Visit ...' is not merely a nostalgic collection of interlocked stories, but one that looks to the present and predicts an amusing, albeit strange, future.

• Rege Behe

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