Jennifer Egan wants to save literary fiction from itself


I’m supposed to note the age and appearance of Jennifer Egan (59, incredibly lovely). She is warm and funny, deeply charming. We met one of those days in March that offered the first breath of spring. We had a tight window – she had to go home to her mother who had just arrived – and afterwards I was worried that I hadn’t asked any of the right profile questions. I had no idea how it felt to be the mother of young adult sons during the pandemic. I didn’t ask where she writes or what she eats when she does. Instead, we wandered around Manhattan’s East Village, talking about what fiction might be worth.

In a time of cultural distrust of the novel – evident in the proliferation of tightly constructed autofiction and the supremacy of television – Egan remains a true believer. This is what struck me when re-reading his work. His books are filled with tricks, devices, doubles, spies and sinking ships. “I’m a big believer in novels,” she said. “I also really know that sadness, to love something whose cultural power is weakening, but I’m not giving up.”

The rare writer for whom each book has been an entirely different gamble, Egan has continually worked to expand what the novel and the novelist are capable of. She wrote a coming of age and a gothic novel. She once described the image she had in her mind when writing her novel “Look at Me”, about a model, a teenager and a terrorist, as a number eight. “Manhattan Beach,” the 2017 historical novel that plays him most directly — his uncle loved it; “I’ve never heard of any other books by him” – felt like a departure because it was so familiar. But for Egan, it was still a formal stretch and, she says, the hardest to write.

Yet it was his 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning story novel, “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” that catapulted an already stellar career into the stratosphere. Perhaps best known (at least in writing circles) for its PowerPoint chapter presentation, it was exciting not because slideshows were particularly new in 2010, but because the book was able to synthesize that quirkiness. of life in art. Critics and readers love to pronounce the novel dead, but “Goon Squad” – with all its formal acrobatics and leaps in time and point of view, so fully imbued with our own aspirations – underlined the vitality of the form. .

“The Candy House,” released this week, expands the world of “Goon Squad.” It’s part sequel and part prequel, but it’s not a return; Egan never left. A first chapter dates back to 2010, she told me: “Lulu the Spy” was published by the New Yorker under the title “Black Box” in 2012. And for a year and a half, she worked on “Manhattan Beach” and “Candy House”. simultaneously – until “it became clear that ‘Manhattan Beach’ would require all my time.”

While the idea of ​​a sequel may come as a surprise to those who associate Egan’s work with innovation, the fact that she wanted to delve deeper into what has proven to be the most elastic world has a lot of senses. Going back to the same people allowed him to stretch them too: “I’m really interested in how we are such a mix of contradictory qualities; the same person is heroic and terribly selfish.

“Candy House” fleshes out characters we only glimpsed in “Goon Squad,” but it also gave Egan the opportunity to write a chapter of espionage, invent new technology, and create stories via emails and tweets. It’s worth noting that – unlike recent books that have sought to replicate the very online experience – none of these read like tweets or emails: they read like a story. It’s the thrill of “Goon Squad” and “Candy House”: they exploit this new and strange material, but their greatest pleasures feel peculiar to books.

Another new twist in the service of old-school storytelling comes in sci-fi “Candy House.” In “Goon Squad”, Bix Bouton was Lizzie’s black boyfriend; Avoiding his racist parents, he wandered the city and eventually encountered two much bigger characters one fateful day. In the new novel, Bix, now center stage, invents a panopticon, Possessing one’s unconscious, which allows one to enter the memory of others. In Egan’s hands, it’s a red herring, proof that the dream of knowing everything is a hollow illusion. It’s not exactly dystopian – it’s too fun and meaty for that – but it is, in a way, a warning.

“I guess in order to do something big, you have to believe that it’s going to change everything,” Egan said. “And I, for some reason, have a delusional ability to think that about what I’m working on.” I asked her how she dealt with the disappointment of returning to a world unchanged by her work. “It’s just the feeling of doing things right.”

For Egan, getting it right is about satisfying a reader’s craving — the word “craving” appears in the opening line of ‘Candy House’ and the final chapter of ‘Goon Squad’ — for mystery and imagination. , as opposed to the barrage of information, the much emptier imagistic titillations, which we find much easier to access.

Our walk took us to the East River, where construction forced us to cross a series of footbridges. Egan seemed to be stifling an urge to pick up trash. We were constantly spinning around the same constellation of words: imagination, information, pleasure, authenticity. She told me about the “player layers” she uses to ensure she delivers the experience you want. “My goal is to give pleasure, honestly,” she said. “I love to hear that people miss subway stops” when reading his work.

Besides fiction, Egan believes in another somewhat outdated concept: the human imagination. “I think we can do anything,” she said. She talked about history but also about vaccines and antibiotics. Like one of those novelists who haven’t always had so much faith in fiction or in people, I pressed her to explain herself. Disconcerted, I mentioned a podcast I was listening to on Ukraine. (Egan isn’t a big fan of podcasts; she mostly listens to 18th-century novels.) I had heard historian Timothy Snyder talk about the peculiarity of this moment having less to do with impending doom than with the feeling doomed to stagnation, unable to imagine what else might be possible.

“One of the paradoxes that led me to ‘Candy House’ is the fact that we seem unable to predict anything,” she said. “Despite the amount of information we have, we didn’t know Trump was going to be elected. We didn’t know 9/11 was going to happen. The paradox is the overabundance of information and the lack of observation. “I thinks media saturation… creates a distortion i.e. you have to be the center of a universe. You have to create a universe that revolves around you. And if you can’t do that, you are invisible and helpless.

It seemed to relate to so much recent “I”-driven fiction, but also to the self-torture of scrolling through your phone in the middle of the night, because what if one more tweet could tell us how we might survive?

There’s a character in “Candy House” who shouts at random in public in an attempt to access authenticity, to force people to inhabit the world more fully. “Its goal was to create such extreme disruption that it rocked genuine responses,” Egan writes. It sounds like what she does in her work: not mirroring the world, but harnessing the tremendous power of fiction, in all its forms, to force us to stop and look at it.

“One thing that I really felt as I got older is that ultimately art is what lasts,” she said, “because it ends up being the artifact. It’s the seashells that remain after it’s all gone. I mean, what do we know about the information about Hadrian’s reign in Rome? But the art is there. It’s the feeling that remains.

Strong is a critic and author, most recently, of the novel “Want”.

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.


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