Monday, June 28, 2010

Why isn't Jennifer Egan a household name?

So, Jennifer Egan's latest novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, went on sale on June 8th. I wrote a rave review on this blog several weeks ago which is currently the top review on the book's page. (Feel free to go vote it "helpful.") Print reviewers between here and Timbuktu have been tripping all over themselves to see who can praise this novel most highly. It's a good freakin' book.

Still, it has yet to appear on the New York Times bestseller list. I keep crossing my fingers and hoping next week. But more disturbing is this: no one I know has ever read Jennifer Egan. I'm not sure if anyone but me has even heard of her.

How is this possible? I mean, her 2001 sophomore novel, Look at Me, was a National Book Award finalist. That was the first one I read. I'm fairly certain the hardback was handed to me at some publishing trade show or other. I'm thinking it was the Northern California Independent Booksellers' Association Trade Show, and I can't believe that was back in 2001! Seriously, where does the time go? But note to publishing marketers: I read the book you gave me for free, and have been a dedicated reader and evangelist for this author ever since.

The second novel I read was The Keep, her follow-up to Look at Me. It was completely different. I loved it even more. A Visit from the Goon Squad is her best yet. Do you see a trend? I'm pretty sure I'm going to keep reading Jennifer Egan, and keep trying to spread the word. (Incidentally, I do have a signed, first edition hardback of her debut novel, Invisible Circus. I'll probably read it some day, but there's no rush.)

So, Jennifer Egan came through San Francisco on her book tour last week. I didn't realize it, but this is her hometown. She lives somewhere back east now, but grew up here. And still has people. I think I may have been the only person at Books, Inc. that was neither friend nor family.

She read the entire chapter where Scotty goes to visit Bennie. It was funny in my head when I read it, but much funnier hearing her read it aloud. The book works well for these tour readings, as each chapter is essentially a fully contained short story. The novel is made up of intricately linked stories. I asked her, "What gives a novelist the idea to write a chapter in the form of a PowerPoint presentation?" Her answer was interesting: She wanted to try to write in as many styles or ways as she possible could. First person, third person, even second person. Past, present, future. One chapter is a magazine article. And, yes, one is a PowerPoint presentation.

In my review, I commented on the theme of traveling from point A to point B, and commented on how the motif is repeated a few times, and that even the two parts of the book that might be Part I and Part II in another book are A and B in Goon Squad. It's so obvious, but it never occurred to me until she said it that the two halves, A and B, are labeled like the sides of an LP. (Many of the characters work in the music business.) D'uh.

The other thing I thought was pretty interesting was her response when someone asked her how she decided what order to put the stories in. She said, she just tried to think of what someone would be in the mood to read after finishing the story that proceeded it. A subjective (but effective) method, as it turned out.

She referenced her next project several times during the evening. It'll be a period novel set during WWII, I think she said. It's about the women who worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. She is reinventing herself yet again. This is a writer not content to rest on her laurels. The subject is of no particular interest to me, but you can count on me grabbing a copy the day it goes on sale. (Well, hopefully I can snag a review copy.) I hope the wait is not too long.

Meanwhile, my advice is to go out and grab a copy of A Visit to the Goon Squad. Please buy it from your local independent bookseller. (And I didn't tell you this, but if you're really, really poor, it's 45% off at that evil online retailer I write reviews for.) Read it, and comment here and tell me what you think. Have I over-hyped Jennifer, or just enough? Have you read her? Heard of her? If not, it's time to give her a try!


  1. Talk about stumbling on a blog of interest! I just finished this book on a blind hunch at the local miniscule library.(This particular branch has a surprizingly sophisicated selection of 'new books'.) I literally made a note to look for the 3 previous works she wrote. You can bank on the fact that now I'll be sure to follow thru. thanx

  2. Hi Sewannsowgardens,

    I'm glad you found your way here. Please come again. And I'm glad you enjoyed Goon Squad. All of her novels are different, but they're pretty terrific. I hope you enjoy them as much as I have!