By Jennifer Egan
Jennifer Egan's decision to render portions of her new novel, "A Visit From the Goon Squad" (Knopf), as a PowerPoint presentation is: Clever. Edgy. Groundbreaking.
The novel by Egan, a Chicago native, may remind you of: Joan Didion. Don DeLillo. None of the above.
For all of its cool, languid, arched-eyebrow sophistication - that's the part that will make you think "Didion" - and for all of the glitteringly gorgeous sentences that flit through its pages like exotic fish - that's the DeLillo part - the novel is actually a sturdy, robust, old-fashioned affair. It features characters about whom you come to care deeply as you watch them doing things they shouldn't, acting gloriously, infuriatingly human: that is, selfish and foolish and confused. Each is prey to the meanest thug who ever lurked in a dark alley with a loaded gun.
The thug is time. And in the end, he gets us all.
"There are things you can do in PowerPoint that you can't do in conventional fiction," says Egan, 47, from her home in Brooklyn, N.Y., where she lives with her husband and sons, ages 7 and 9. "PowerPoint exists in a continuous present. I fear technology, of course, and wonder about its effect on our inner lives, but this was a case where it made me realize that there are possibilities out there that are so interesting."
Including a PowerPoint-ized section is just another risky, high-wire act from an author whose first novel was titled "The Invisible Circus" (1995) and who likes to challenge readers with her restless, inventive narrative strategies, from "Look at Me" (2001) to "The Keep" (2006).
But at the core of each work is a grandly compelling story. In "A Visit From the Goon Squad," that story loops across the lives of musicians and hangers-on in the punk rock scene in 1970s San Francisco, then snakes through New York and Naples, Italy, finally tightening around the faltering, time-ravaged hearts of its central characters.
Each chapter is a self-enclosed short story, fighting to escape and join the others. "At night I'd stand in the shower and feel the stories reaching out these tentacles and connecting with each other," Egan says. "I wanted to write a book about time and change. I was interested in the way that music cuts through time, bring back periods as if they hadn't passed."
Egan's past is tied to Chicago, where one grandfather was a police officer on the South Side and the other played briefly for the Chicago Bears.
"What drives me is curiosity," Egan says, "and a desire to keep myself interested. I'm just trying to do stuff that feels vital."