LectureHop: Jennifer Egan Gives Facebook A Close Read

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Last night, Pulitzer Prize-winner Jennifer Egan sat down with The New Yorker fiction editor Willing Davidson in the swanky penthouse of Columbia’s very own International Affairs Building. Luscious lecturehopper Diana Clarke reports. 

The fifteenth floor of IAB is all corporate conference rooms, which, when the sun goes down, reveal the kind of glittering skyline New Yorkers pay penthouse rents to see. But Jennifer Egan, author and Pulitzer Prize-winner for A Visit from the Goon Squad, had a Fort Greene sensibility that seemed to bring things a little nearer to the ground. The occasion for her visit was Rewiring the Real, a series of talks on religion, technology, and literature hosted by the Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life. She was interviewed by Willing Davidson, the trim and dour fiction editor of The New Yorker.

A pensive Jennifer Egan

The novel, said Egan, was inspired by rereading Proust in her thirties, and coming to identify with his nostalgia for a world that had disappeared. That world, for Egan, was one without technology. Is technology changing us fundamentally as humans? Egan highlighted the rise of image culture, “the growing sense I think many of us have of our images as something separate from ourselves.” And while she herself is not an avid tech user—she noted that she writes only on legal pads because, “I need to get into a more meditative, instinctive state where I have ideas that surprise me”—many readers have told her that the loose interlocking structure of the twelve short stories that make up the book (“It’s a concept album,” Egan said—and the book, of course, focuses on the music industry) reminded them of the way Facebook allows the user to follow tangential connections between people. Egan, who did not join Facebook until after the book’s release, called the website “tremendously dull. It’s like everyone lives in huge Soviet apartment block” where you have no control, and can’t change around your furniture or decorations at any time.

Egan believes that people treat the modern phenomenon of constant connectivity as a means to temporary transcendence, an easily accessible hit of satisfaction, a symbol for something that is missing from frenetic contemporary life. Of Goon Squad she says, “it mimicked the hypertext model, following laterally” between the lives of her characters. And despite its author’s evident skepticism over the value of technology in everyday life (her children “sense the terror I feel” at the idea of them growing up connected), Egan acknowledges that it’s an inescapable fact. To that end, Goon Squad is perhaps most famous for the PowerPoint chapter, in which twelve-year-old Allie explores her loneliness, and expressed her love for her brother, Lincoln. If the story had been told in traditional narrative, said Egan, it would have been “nauseating” for its sweetness. But with the soulless filter of a boardroom presentation, it aches with sincerity, much as Egon’s honest answers countered the grubby industrial carpeting of IAB 1501.

“Excitement is excitement,” said Egan. If people are doing everything else on iPads and e-readers, books have to follow if they’re going to survive. Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy did everything a novel ever will, so all we can do now is innovate.

Jennifer Egan via Wikimedia Commons

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  1. Anonymous  

    great recap, Diana!

  2. er...  

    are the last two sentences a quote from her? i feel like they should have quotation marks

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