It has been a good year for American novelist Jennifer Egan. In March, she won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, trouncing Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom”. A month later, she was awarded a Pulitzer Prize, the ultimate US literary garland, and, soon after, the LA Times book prize. Since then Egan, 49, has been in huge demand for readings and media appearances. Yet the bestselling book that scooped all these awards, “A Visit from the Goon Squad”, a cool, funny, polyphonic novel about the music industry and the ravages of time, is seen as a surprise hit.
Despite universally good reviews, A Visit from the Goon Squad “tanked” (as Egan puts it) when first published in 2010. So much so that she started to feel depressed about how badly it was selling. “Last fall, I was ashamed that I was still signing from a box of first editions. I was tossing copies in the direction of anyone who wanted them.”
But by the end of the year things started to pick up and by January those first editions had finally sold out. In fact, sales were rising so fast that Egan’s publishers decided to rush out the paperback. At the same time, the extraordinary run of prizes began and, as Egan puts it, “the good luck all synchronised”.
By the time she had won the National Book Critics Circle Award, Egan realised she had achieved her two lifelong career goals – to win a major literary prize and to make The New York Times bestseller list. In April, when she got the call from Pulitzer, she recalls, “that was when things began to enter the realm of the hallucinatory. My sense of my reality, as I had known it, began to alter”.
The phone rang on Passover, and Egan was not only co-hosting a supper with her husband, the theatre director David Herskovits, at their Brooklyn home, but she was also about to take their two young sons to a “little off-the-grid farm” for four days.
Media pressure kicked in right away. Her publicist held the fort, while Egan, with zero mobile reception, managed to do a live National Public Radio interview from a public phone booth. Since then, she hasn’t stopped. Goon Squad is now being published in 28 other countries.
Looking back, Egan puts the book’s slow start down to a combination of its defiantly quirky title and its resistance to easy classification. Goon Squad is a loose mesh of stories consisting of 13 chapters, each cleverly honing in on a peripheral character from one of the previous chapters. Retrospectively, she realised that the inspiration behind this freewheeling, patchwork approach was unquestionably the concept album – in particular Tommy and Quadrophenia by the Who, the group which defined her as a teenager.
The book’s timeline is also anti-linear, dipping and diving into different episodes in characters’ lives. Egan had long wanted to write on the tricksy subject of time, partly thanks to Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, which she and a group of friends had been faithfully making their way through, and partly thanks to her admiration for the long-running HBO series The Sopranos. Fusing the ideas, she became determined to “write about the sweep of time using the techniques of a TV series”. In a neat turnaround, HBO has since put an option on A Visit From the Goon Squad for it to be made into a TV series.
At the time of publication, Egan was anxious about giving such an experimental work a definite label. “I didn’t want to call it a novel, or a collection of short stories. This may have contributed to its woes in the market place: it was an object without a category.”
The title was another sticking point: “I think it alienates people. A number said to me retroactively that they had been worried about it from the start, but no one actually told me.” Once you read the book, though, all becomes clear. The “goon” of the title is time itself – paying a surprise visit to a motley crew of ageing music hipsters who suddenly realise they are no longer the groovy young things they once were. But, while the focus is the cruelty of time, it is an ultimately hopeful book.
Goon Squad wasn’t a bolt from the blue. Egan, as she puts it, has been “at it a long time”; her back catalogue boasts four acclaimed books. Her UK publisher has recently brought out all five with a homogenous set of groovy covers. She likes them as they don’t alienate either sex. “I drew the line at pink,” she says, expressing disdain for books that are marketed solely at women.
This reminds me that there is one prize she didn’t win this year – the women-only Orange Prize for Fiction – for which, inexplicably, she was only longlisted, much to the disappointment of the UK literati. Did she mind? Not a bit.
“And I also feel I shouldn’t win everything,” she adds spiritedly. “It’s not even about being over-rewarded, but you’ve gotta spread the love around. Let’s see other people win! I’m ready for that.”