Shortly after graduating from Penn in 1985, Jennifer Egan held a series of temp jobs, from catering at the World Trade Center to assisting a countess who was an ex-World War II spy.
Today, Egan is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who filled the Harrison Rooftop Lounge to capacity last night with almost 200 students eager to hear her speak about her book, “A Visit from the Goon Squad.”
A New York Times bestseller, the book is an experiment in narrative and form, with rock-and-roll influences. It is divided into an “A” side and a “B” side, like a record, and contains many short vignettes from different perspectives and moments in time. “I thought of it as an entanglement of stories and lives,” Egan said.
The book was also chosen for the Winter Reading Project, which was supported by both the English Department and the Provost’s Office, because of it’s connection to the Year of Sound. Students were able to receive free copies of the book. Attendance at this annual event was about seven times higher than in previous years, according to College senior and President of the English Undergraduate Advisory Board Kate Herzlin.
Students were particularly interested in what is known as the “PowerPoint Chapter” of the book, where a young character communicates solely through a series of PowerPoint slides. Egan came to the idea “via corporate narratives,” or how corporations communicate. She even borrowed one of the PowerPoint graphics used, a seesaw balancing text boxes, from a presentation her sister was preparing for Bain & Company.
English professor J.C. Cloutier, who joined Egan along with cinema studies lecturer Kathy DeMarco Van Cleve in a panel discussion, spoke of his interest in the visual and musical aspects of the novel and how it explores what it means to move from “analog to digital.” Egan was fascinated by the connection between music and time and how music can become connected with certain memories and periods in life. For Egan, listening to her iPod on her morning jog is “in a way, shuffling through my life on a regular basis.”
At the end of the event, Egan read aloud her short story, “Black Box,” which was serialized on Twitter by The New Yorker. Tweeted in paragraphs of 140 characters or fewer, it purported to be the mission log of a female spy in the far future.
Egan also spoke of the difficulties of writing, which for her was an unconscious and intuitive process. “I do it on a wing and a prayer,” she said. “Sometimes no one shows up for these appointments with inspiration except me.”
Her words inspired aspiring writer Vaishak Kumar, a sophomore in the College. “[A Visit from the Goon Squad] is very experimental — it’s pushing the form ahead,” he said. “It did change the way I think about novels. I plan to write a lot more [now].”
Egan, who was an English major, remembered her time at Penn as “spectacular.” She considered history professor Alan Kors’ class on the Enlightenment, deceased sociology professor Philip Rief’s class on Freud and a class taught by Chaim Potok on science and literature especially influential during her time at Penn.
She also emphasized “that the two best skills you can emerge from college with [are] to above all be a good reader and a good writer.”
“There are no skills that are more valuable.”