‘Goon Squad’ takes fiction Pulitzer Prize

Jennifer Egan’s protean novel “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” which uses the music business to explore how time and technology ruthlessly reshape individual lives, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and “Clybourne Park,” Bruce Norris’ tart, time-bending comic response to Lorraine Hansberry’s landmark “A Raisin in the Sun,” captured the drama prize.

Among the other Pulitzer arts and literary winners, announced Monday, Ron Cherwin took the biography prize with “Washington: A Life,” a candid exploration of the private and public identities of America’s first president. In the general nonfiction category, Siddhartha Mukherjee won for “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer,” an investigation into one of the most persistently malevolent and science-thwarting of diseases.

Eric Foner took the history prize for his work “The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery,” and Kay Ryan won the poetry award for “The Best of It: New and Selected Poems.”


Egan’s genre-blurring book also won the National Book Critics Circle Award in the same category, besting what had been the presumed front-runner, Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom.” The Pulitzer committee praised the book, with its generous and elliptical vision, for its “big-hearted curiosity” and playful use of form -- one chapter is told entirely in Powerpoint slides. Egan, 48, was raised in San Francisco and lives in New York. This is her fifth book.

Mukherjee, 40, studied at Stanford, Oxford and Harvard Medical School and is now an assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University and an oncologist at the CU/NYU Presbyterian Hospital.

Ryan already had achieved acclaim as U.S. poet laureate from 2008-10, but this is her first Pulitzer Prize. The committee described her work as “witty,” “iconoclastic and joyful.” Born in 1945 in San Jose, she was raised in the San Joaquin Valley and the Mojave Desert, and has made her home in Marin County for four decades. She’ll appear at her alma mater, UCLA, on Saturday with fellow poet Billy Collins.

In the classical music category, the Chinese emigre composer Zhou Long earned the award for his opera “Madame White Snake,” which was premiered Feb. 26, 2010, by the Boston Opera. Zhou is the husband of another Chinese emigre composer, Chen Yi.

Based on a Chinese folk tale, “Madame White Snake” blends Eastern and Western musical styles and instrumentation. “He was able to create a profound stylistic and sonic synthesis,” said Joseph Horowitz, artistic advisor to the Pacific Symphony, which spotlighted Zhou and Chen’s work in its 2004 American Composers Festival. “That’s a singular contribution.”

Norris’ play takes its title from the fictitious white neighborhood in Chicago that the aspirational African American Younger family was moving to at the end of Hansberry’s drama. Flashing between 1959 and 2009, the play paints “a picture of the persistence of human beings to divide themselves into self and other,” wrote Los Angeles Times theater critic Charles McNulty in his review of the American Conservatory Theater’s production of the play last January. McNulty also praised Norris for an “irascible fearlesness” that “flies in the face of political correctness.”

In a statement, Norris, a former actor, said that he was “deeply honored and totally flabbergasted” to receive the award, and thanked Playwrights Horizons in New York, where the play premiered; the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, D.C.; and the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago. The Steppenwolf has had a long working relationship with Norris, premiering several of his previous plays, and it also hosted the world premiere of another of this year’s Pulitzer finalists, Lisa D’Amour’s “Detroit,” a tragicomedy set in that Rust Belt metropolis. The third drama finalist was John Guare’s serious-minded historical romp “A Free Man of Color.”

Speaking by phone, Martha Lavey, Steppenwolf’s artistic director, cited Norris’ “extraordinarily sharp wit” as one of his writing’s most distinctive qualities. “He’s very careful in the way he writes,” she said. “There’s no excess.”