“This Talking Volumes with Jennifer Egan is turning into a bunch of babyboomer women hating on the Internet,” wrote Becky Lang from the seat next to me September 14 at the Fitzgerald Theater. “Had to stop listening to tweet.”
That’s an accurate report—but while tweeting, Becky may have failed to notice the audience member who stood up to ask a question, identified himself as being 26 years old, and explained that the chapter of A Visit from the Goon Squad that Egan wrote in the form of PowerPoint slides made him feel really old and technologically out of touch.
It’s a shame that host Kerri Miller allowed the conversation (part of Minnesota Public Radio’s Talking Volumes series) to turn so much around technology, but it’s also a shame that Egan allowed the 2010 novel—winner of the Pulitzer Prize—to conclude with a dystopian and dyspeptic chapter set in a near future where technology is eroding imagination. On Wednesday night, Egan remembered a youthful sojourn in Europe where, in part because of limited technology (she was born in 1962), she was unable to communicate very frequently with her friends and family and was forced to live alone with her own head for a while. The constant contact that technology now permits? “It’s hard to imagine how it could be good,” she said.
I really enjoyed almost all of Goon Squad, and what I liked best about the novel was a quality that Egan and Miller touched on early in their conversation: the qualities of empathy and curiosity, of getting sympathetically into the heads of disparate characters. “Judging is so easy,” Egan said. “A bigger challenge is to make actions understandable.”
Egan’s prose is pleasantly lucid, a quality that’s surely related to her experience as a journalist. The novel zigzags back and forth through time, taking snapshots of the lives of characters who are trying to figure out how it all fits together, how their lives make sense. A passage Egan read aloud is representative:
I’m back at my mother’s again, trying to finish my B.A. at UCLA Extension after some long, confusing detours. “Your desultory twenties,” my mother calls my lost time, trying to make it sound reasonable and fun, but it started before I was twenty and lasted much longer. I’m praying it’s over.
It was ironic that I attended Egan’s talk with Becky; on our blog The Tangential, Becky and I, along with our cobloggers, take an approach that’s in many ways the opposite of Egan’s. Egan writes fiction always in longhand; we write nonfiction, never in longhand. Egan’s suspicious of technology; our writing embraces it. Most significantly, Egan made clear on Wednesday that she’s uncomfortable writing about herself and rarely does it; we write so much about ourselves that we have a whole section devoted to “oversharing.” But Becky and I both enjoyed Goon Squad, a book full of characters who—like people who do write about themselves often—take ownership of their flaws in an attempt to, in Egan’s terms, make them understandable.
Egan told Miller a story about teaching a class to college students: 21-year-olds who told Egan of the generation gap between them and 13-year-olds who have grown up with no memory of a time before there was Facebook. Everyone, Egan speculated, feels somehow outdated.
As soon as you start living, you start dying, and from the first minute of your life, there’s always someone younger. Perhaps what’s most alarming about technology is not the way it changes our lives but the way, in its rapid progress, it dramatizes the fact that our lives are changing. At its best, Egan’s acclaimed novel has its characters standing in that river of time and watching it run, trying to wrap their minds around a thing that’s always moving yet also constant. “There is water at the bottom of the ocean,” goes a song that Egan’s punk-loving characters might recognize. “Same as it ever was, same as it ever was.”