A master of genre hopscotching, Jennifer Egan stays curious to enliven her writing
By Adele Oliveira
Santa Fe New Mexican
If Jennifer Egan’s body of work has a defining characteristic, it’s curiosity. She’s authored six novels, a short story collection, and a broad range of nonfiction, from cerebral essays on celebrity to reported international dispatches. Egan’s interests seem boundless, and her natural inclination toward asking questions is infectious. Her subjects are eclectic (a Gothic ghost story; a supermodel who wrests control of her image; haunted ’70s sisters — and that’s just touching on her fiction), but she is best known for a pair of novels: 2010’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and 2022’s The Candy House. The former not only captured critical acclaim but also stayed in the cultural conversation, landing on best book of the decade lists from Entertainment Weekly, Time, and Literary Hub, to name a few. The Candy House taps into Goon Squad’s approach. Both books experiment with form, including chapters that unfurl as a series of tweets and a jarringly poignant PowerPoint presentation that one must flip the book sideways to read. While each novel stands on its own, they both feature a constellation of interconnected characters whose convergences never feel forced or didactic but seem incidental, as precious as they are fleeting. The Candy House and Goon Squad are the most fragmented and nonlinear of Egan’s books, told in linked vignettes, and both are concerned with themes Egan’s been circling her entire career and across genres: fame, privacy, loss, familial bonds, and the advantages and consequences of technology. “For me, all of life is a source of contemplation and inspiration. There’s nothing that is off limits,” Egan says from Brooklyn, where she lives. “Daniel Boorstin coined the phrase ‘famous for being famous’ in his 1961 book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. He’s examining the way in which media culture first began to exist through television and was creating a new kind of fame that had nothing to do necessarily with real world achievement but with the familiarity of one’s image. That continues to interest me a lot, as fame ricochets and ripples through our technology and continues to change, constantly.” The Candy House opens with a self-inflicted paradox. Tech innovator and billionaire Bix Bouton dons a disguise to attend a post-lecture discussion at the home of Columbia University professors. Bix is so famous — for optimizing algorithmic formulas, among other advances — that he isn’t supposed to go out in public without a security detail. He’s proud of his work but stymied too, trapped in the world he’s helped create and scared that he’s already had his last great epiphany. Part of Bix yearns for his old life: lean, anonymous days as a graduate student living on the Lower East Side, right before the internet explosion. After the discussion, at the end of Bix’s escapade, it’s a solo midnight walk along the East River — a walk that wouldn’t be possible if anyone knew who or where he was — lost in thought and memory that leads Bix to his next brilliant, billiondollar idea. Egan is known for tapping into the zeitgeist, for putting into word and scene the thoughts many people have while daydreaming, like amorphous worry about the growing proliferation of AI-generated information, or puzzling over whether anyone can find that ill-advised Tumblr blog made on a whim one night in the aughts. Egan is clear that she writes from a place of imagination when it comes to technology. She doesn’t write about herself or her life. If she does, it’s ancillary and impersonal while still managing to feel both unexpected and logical. When her kids — now young adults — were younger, one was into Strat-O-Matic, an esoteric statistical baseball game played with pencil and paper, and the other was a role-playing game aficionado. “Those interests ended up not just being window dressing in [The Candy House] but helped undergird the ideas that inform it,” Egan says. “Culturally, the two are far apart, but elements are strikingly alike: an interesting and sometimes uneasy mix of statistics and storytelling; a quantitative and qualitative approach to narrative. There were years when I hosted both in our house — a Strat-O-Matic group for one of my kids and the Dungeons and Dragons group for the other — on the same day. I made a bunch of cookies and gave everyone the cookies, which was my way of eavesdropping.” All of Egan’s writing carries a whiff of cross-pollination, the desire to span and map disciplines, ideas, art forms. Several characters from A Visit from the Goon Squad are involved in the music industry, and the novel itself is invested in music, both real artists — David Bowie, Garbage, the Doobie Brothers — and invented ones, like the impeccably named The Flaming Dildos and The Conduits. “I love music. I’m not very knowledgeable about music, but I listen to it very carefully for structural ideas,” Egan says. “Even though The Candy House is not about music per se, it informed my sense of how to organize its material. Often, when a song is affecting me, I think, how can I do that in fiction?” There are echoes of other arts too, like the story and sculpted forms of Orpheus and Eurydice that underpin a chapter in Goon Squad, during which an unhappy uncle named Ted (whom we’ll meet again in The Candy House with Bix, a couple decades later) wanders Naples in the ’90s, halfheartedly searching for his wayward niece, Sasha, whom Egan’s fans will already know. Though she’s renowned for her fiction, Egan is also an engaging journalist. Her nonfiction retains the lyrical, narrative qualities often associated with fiction, and her ability to conjure place with immediacy and clarity remains intact. Many of her reported stories appear in The New York Times Magazine, for which she’s covered everything from the saga of Lori Berenson, an American who was imprisoned in Peru on terrorism charges, to mental illness, the opioid crisis, and adolescent sexuality. “I’m working on a piece right now about supportive housing in New York, and I’m deeply involved in the world of street homelessness,” Egan says. “Journalism gives me access to worlds that I would not be part of otherwise, and I don’t think my fiction career would have happened without the experiences I’ve had as a journalist. As I get older, too, it’s possible to become very insular, especially as a writer . . . . For me, who hates writing about myself, if my range of possibility becomes insular, I’ve got nothing to offer to the world. So I need to stay engaged.” While in Santa Fe, she’ll meet with local students. Egan resists the idea of having a specific message for young people — in particular young people who want to be writers. Nevertheless, she offers this: “Reading deeply is essential to writing well. At this point, reading deeply is an act of resistance. We are being manipulated all the time by smart people, by the most powerful corporations in the world. Their goal is to keep us from concentrating deeply on anything. Resist those forces by reading deeply. And it’s the only way to write well — everyone wants to write, but it’s very hard to read well.” For her part, Egan will keep asking questions. Adele Oliveira grew up in Santa Fe and lives here with her family.