Entertainment & Arts

Jennifer Egan on time-twisting new novel

Image caption Egan's previous books include The Invisible Circus and The Keep

Jennifer Egan's novel A Visit fom the Goon Squad has just won a major award in the US and appears on the Orange Prize longlist.

But why did Egan choose to write an entire chapter in Microsoft PowerPoint?

The story begins in a hotel bathroom on Christmas Eve.

American author Jennifer Egan sees a woman using a cubicle has left her bag unattended outside, her wallet on view.

"I got very anxious," admits the Chicago-born novelist when we meet in the plush library of a Covent Garden hotel.

"I myself have been robbed many times in many ways - the most egregious being the time someone stole my wallet and then phoned me posing as a bank employee and got me to give her my pin number. It was unbelievable."

Intrigued by the question of who might take the wallet - and why - Egan wrote a short story that eventually became chapter one of A Visit from the Goon Squad.

The novel, just published in the UK, is a series of interlocking stories set against the background of the US music industry.

The action leaps between various locations, such as New York, San Francisco, east Africa and Italy.

It also moves, Tardis-like, in time - from the punky 1970s to a near-future where thousands of solar panels tilt in unison like "robotic ninja warriors doing Tai Chi".

Along the way, the reader meets a huge cast of characters at different stages of their lives.

One of the key players is Sasha, a kleptomaniac who was inspired by Egan's hotel bathroom incident.

"That's pretty much the way I always begin fiction," admits Egan. "I need a time and place and that's about it."

Goon Squad was the surprise winner of the fiction prize from the National Book Critics Circle in America, beating Jonathan Franzen's Freedom.

PowerPoint and poetry

Egan's other works include The Invisible Circus, The Keep and Emerald City and Other Stories.

Yet Goon Squad is the only novel to feature PowerPoint. "I did it kind of secretively," smiles the author mischievously.

"I had already sold the book without the PowerPoint chapter [but] I felt the book would be significantly better with it.

"I knew it was a long shot and the publisher might not want to put it in."

Having taught herself PowerPoint, Egan wrote the chapter in two months. "I felt possessed by the need to make the PowerPoint work.

"I actually did it very quickly. Some of the [other] chapters took six to eight months to get right."

Image caption The novel has been longlisted for this year's Orange prize

The chapter itself is narrated by Sasha's 12-year-old daughter and is titled Great Rock and Roll Pauses.

Music lovers will enjoy its dissection of pauses in classics songs like George Michael's Faith and David Bowie's Young Americans.

"The family tale that is told in PowerPoint is one that would have sound treacly and sentimental if I had written it in conventional fiction," explains Egan.

"But PowerPoint is so cold and corporate that I felt the two neutralised each other's worst points."

Did she play with any other literary devices? "Yes, I'm sad to say my great failure was epic poetry," she goes on.

"It would have been so nice to have epic poetry and PowerPoint in one book. Unfortunately, I am a terrible poet."

It is perhaps no surprise that Egan cites Proust and The Sopranos among her Goon Squad influences.

"I knew that I wanted to write about time because I had returned to Proust in my forties.

"At the same time I was watching The Sopranos, which also unfolds in an odd real-time."

And then there is Quentin Tarantino's film Pulp Fiction, which Egan admits was a "huge influence".

"When I saw Pulp Fiction I was so electrified by the moment when John Travolta is killed in a bathroom and then he's back in the next scene.

"To play with chronology in such a way that the dead are resurrected was enthralling."

Egan's novel The Invisible Circus was made into a film in 2001, starring Cameron Diaz and Christopher Eccleston.

Can she see Goon Squad as a movie? It seems an altogether more difficult big-screen proposition.

"Who knows? There are possibilities," the author says in conclusion.

"But possibilities are a dime a dozen in Hollywood!"

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan is published by Corsair.

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