Egen’s newest book takes on unconventional and a diverse character lineup

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Award-winning author and journalist Jennifer Egan’s most recent book, “A Visit from the Goon Squad” seems to defy classification. The stories that make up the book span multiple narrative styles and generations, the most experimental of which is a chapter told entirely through Power Point.

When asked during a book reading event Tuesday night at Amherst College why she chose this unconventional mode, Egan responded that her choice was not a gimmick and that with any experimental writing, “the particular story has to require telling in that way.”

“Each chapter had to be about a different person, told in a totally different way from all of the other chapters so that the mood and the tone would feel radically different from chapter to chapter,” she said, addressing the crowd in the Cole Assembly Room at Amherst College’s Converse Hall.  “I felt a bit like I was knocking on doors and seeing which ones would open.”

Before launching straight into the first chapter of the book, Egan gave some context to her work.

“I was in the ladies room,” Egan said, “and under the sink was an open purse with a wallet it in.”

This incident led her to remember an earlier event in her life when her wallet was “stolen” from her just before she was scheduled to board a plane. She received a phone call from someone claiming to represent her bank and, after a lengthy discussion, gave the caller her pin number. Turns out, she said, it wasn’t someone who worked for Citibank, but was, in fact, a thief.

Egan later said that “having the thought that I, myself, could have taken the wallet” in the bathroom offered her the insight she needed to write the story that would become the first chapter of “A Visit from the Goon Squad.”

Egan was slated to speak at 8 p.m., but by 7:50 p.m. every row in the Cole Assembly Room was packed and guests were forced to sit on the floor. Many in the crowd clutched copies of her novels, hoping to catch Egan for an autograph after the event.

Novelist and visiting Amherst College Creative Writing Professor Amity W. Gaige introduced Egan by highlighting choice adjectives from the “Goon Squad’s” many positive reviews such as: “virtuosic,” “riveting” and “profound.”

She also alluded to what she saw as the novel’s role in the shifting world of contemporary literature saying that the book’s structure, in some ways, resembles our hyper-text obsessed Internet culture.

Since beginning her career, Egan has completed four novels and one book of short stories. She has also published short fiction in such notable magazines as Harper’s and The New Yorker and her non-fiction work has been featured in The New York Times Magazine.

After publishing her 1993 book of short stories “Emerald City” and her first novel “The Invisible Circus” in 1995, Egan won the National Endowment for the Arts in 1996. Her second novel, 2001’s “Look at Me,” was a finalist for the National Book Award and her third novel, 2006’s “The Keep” was a San Francisco Chronicle and New York Times notable book. “A Visit from the Goon Squad,” released this year, won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award and has been hailed by the New York Times as “a spiky, shape-shifting book … A display of Egan’s extreme virtuosity.”  The same year as “Goon Squad’s” publication, Egan was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award.

Max Calloway can be reached at [email protected]