- An Interview with Jennifer Egan
Over the last few years, Jennifer Egan has typically been described as a rising star, but as Madison Smartt Bell's 2006 front-page review of her latest novel in The New York Times Book Review makes clear, that star has risen. Since 1995, Egan has published three literary novels and a collection of short stories, each of which has been praised for its compelling characters, razor-sharp prose, narrative complexity, and skillful use of point of view. Whether considering a seventies look at the sixties, the intricacies and heartbreak of fashion modeling, the scourge of terrorism, or a contemporary re-creation of gothic fiction, her work is always challenging, always unexpected, always singularly rewarding. John Marshall correctly called her "one of the most gifted writers of her generation." Among her many achievements, Jennifer Egan has won National Endowment for the Arts and Guggenheim fellowships, was a National Book Award finalist, was named a Fellow at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, and won the Cosmopolitan (U.K.) Short Story Award. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, theatrical director David Herskovits, and their two sons.
The Keep (2006) takes a penetrating look at mental illness and does so from the perspective of what seem to be two narrators, one trapped in a mysterious European castle, the other serving a life sentence in an American hard-time penitentiary. On the surface, the novel is an exhilarating re-creation of the best of the gothic novels, at turns terrifying and hilarious. Beneath the surface is a complicated tale of mental illness, self-identity, drug abuse, and today's [End Page 439] "wired" culture. Merrill Kaitz finds echoes of Franz Kafka and Lewis Carroll in the novel, and in this interview Egan adds Ann Radcliffe, Henry James, Edgar Allan Poe, Vladimir Nabokov, and Bram Stoker to the mix. Her use of dual points of view to illuminate two separate tales puts her in a class by herself.
Egan's second novel, Look at Me (2001), received a stunning reception, to put it mildly. It tells the tale of two Charlottes: one a successful Manhattan fashion model whose face is destroyed and then reconstructed after a car accident; the other a troubled teenager seduced by a mysterious and, as it slowly becomes clear, psychotic stranger who turns out to be a terrorist. On one hand, the novel provides a fascinating look at the real world of fashion modeling, a subject Egan has treated in her short story collection Emerald City and Other Stories (1996). But on a deeper level, it is a psychological study of suffering, identity, and mental illness, and a conscious attempt to achieve a Joycean simultaneity. It concludes with a brilliant Swiftian satire on modern values and has been praised for so precisely anticipating what is now called reality television. It anticipated something else as well, since Look at Me, which concerned New York and terrorism, happened to be published within days of the 9/11 attacks.
The Invisible Circus (1995) is a quest novel, told from the point of view of an eighteen year old who is haunted by the suicide of her "hippie" sister a decade earlier. Since the earlier decade was the legendary sixties, Egan's novel contains a penetrating analysis of the realities of the protest movements. Keyed to the ruminations of Ludwig Feuerbach and Emily Dickinson, it also contains a lengthy examination of the roles of fantasy and reality in fiction and in life. In 2001, the novel was transformed into a movie starring Cameron Diaz and Blythe Danner.
In this interview, Jennifer Egan discusses the topics of her fiction frankly and in depth, and she speaks at some length about her remarkable method of composing—especially in her search for a "voice." At the end, she discusses two works in progress: A Visit from the Goon Squad, an intertwined collection of stories set in what she has described as "a polyphonic fictional world" (the book will be published by Knopf in 2010); and a novel located in New York City shortly after World War II. I am deeply indebted for her...