Jennifer Egan: Author, First Amendment Warrior, Time Lord 

The author of 'Manhattan Beach' talks about suing Donald Trump, 'fake news' and reading Proust for years

Jennifer Egan will visit Boise on Thursday, April 25.

Pieter M. van Hattem

Jennifer Egan will visit Boise on Thursday, April 25.

Jennifer Egan has been accused of prescience. Her novel, Look at Me, features a terrorist who has embedded himself into the society he wants to destroy by becoming a high school math teacher. It hit shelves the same week as September 11, 2001. She wrote much of her Pulitzer Prize-winning short story cycle A Visit from the Goon Squad in 2010 before the release of the iPhone, but predicted its impact on children with an in-story touch-screen device for kids called a "Starfish." Writing in The New Yorker, Alexandra Schwartz observed that "Egan can sometimes seem capable of predicting the future."

"I can explain why I'm fascinated by all this: It's my age," Egan told Boise Weekly, referring to her choice of subjects before her Thursday, April 25, reading at The Egyptian Theatre, courtesy of The Cabin's Readings & Conversations series.

Egan was born in 1962, putting her at the youngest periphery of the baby boomers. Call waiting was introduced when she was in college. Then came computers (she dated Apple Founder Steve Jobs as a student), the internet, social media and smartphones. Sometimes she has followed these developments, and sometimes, her vision has preceded them; but she's wary of technology, and lets the human side of it guide her work.

"I'm not fascinated by the thing," she said. "I'm fascinated by the people fascinated by it."

click to enlarge KNOPF
  • Knopf

That has served her well: Egan is a lauded writer of fiction and journalism (notably with The New York Times Magazine), the president of PEN America and a guest lecturer on literature at her alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. Early this year, PEN signed an open letter to the U.S. House of Representatives recommending the passage of a bill that would restore net neutrality, which recently cleared that body and is on its way to the Senate; and in October 2018, it sued President Donald Trump for curtailing a free and independent press, though Egan said his softer attacks on free expression and knowledge, like the use of the term "fake news," may be more pernicious. His disposition toward climate change is near the top of her personal list.

"The idea that climate change is fake news and not real is destructive. It's out-and-out destructive, and that's an extreme worry for many, including me," she said.

Egan's fiction itself is elusive, and any throughline identified across her novels and short stories would likely say more about the critic than the author. Her first novel, The Invisible Circus, deals with a young woman's trip to Europe to discover why her sister committed suicide there; The Keep is as surreal as Franz Kafka's The Castle and as creepy as The House on Haunted Hill.

Her more recent works have a Jacob's Room quality to them, as Egan explores the literary construction of time—she said she was inspired by Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time—through a series of short stories about people tangentially involved in music and the music industry in A Visit from the Goon Squad.

click to enlarge CHARLES SCRIBNER'S SONS
  • Charles Scribner's Sons

"I was explicitly trying to write a book about the passage of time. It works best to do that in this a-chronological way, and to take an almost pointillistic approach to different people at different points in their lives. There was no way to do anything else but to allow many of the events in their lives off-stage, if you will," she said.

She picked up the tool again in her most recent novel, Manhattan Beach, in 2017. In it, a young woman working in the New York shipyards during World War II unravels the mystery of the disappearance of her father years before while also aspiring to become a professional diver. The action takes place before and after her father's disappearance and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, life-shaping events that Egan withholds from her readers, their preludes and consequences striking them but never fully penetrating.

The book points to Egan's unusual relationships with time and narrative. During her conversation with BW, she described taking six years to read In Search of Lost Time with a group. During those years, her life and Proust's narrative layered over each other, and she discovered the impossibility of recreating Proust's moment-by-moment tack in her own work. She instead sought ways to riff off it in her latter books. The result is a rendering of how life lived creates pools and eddies in time.

"We gave birth to five children among us in the time it took us to read [it]," she said. "[My] glancing, fragmentary approach really made sense given that project, because it was a way of suggesting the enormity of passing decades without rendering all of it."

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