Rock Lit is where Hive discusses the intersection of literature and music.
On April 18th, Jennifer Egan’s fourth novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, was named the 2011 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction. And music-minded bookworms celebrated! Because though much of the praise for Egan’s book may have been due to its structure (a string of diverse but interlocked short stories), post-modern narrative (one chapter is made up of a PowerPoint created by an autistic boy in the near-future — one that was, humorously, ill-formatted on a Kindle), and emotional depth, at its heart, the strength of Goon Squad is the celebration of music’s many powers: time-keeper, myth-maker, memory-organizer, cultural avenger. This, bookworms recognized, made it special — not just another piece of Rock Lit.
“I never thought of it as a so-called ‘rock and roll novel,’” says Egan with a chuckle, when I call her in late June, at her Brooklyn home. Yet she thoroughly admits that the sounds of music drove the tale of free-spirited Sasha, record producer moguls Benny and Lou, unhinged musical prodigy Scotty, self-destructive punk icon Bosco, PR queen Dolly, and a dozen-plus others. “Music wasn’t [the novel’s] independent goal; it just insistently surged in. When that is happening, it means that something is organically necessary. And the organically necessary things are always the ones that work the best.”
The beauty of Egan’s music appreciation is not just the knowingness with which dissects the worlds of Bay Area hippies and punks, or record company egos, it’s how her story spotlights music’s capital and cultural portfolios, yet celebrates the investments made by individuals. This, the inner workings of Goon Squad, her fascination with pauses in songs and her rag-tag approach to music knowledge were all foremost on Egan’s mind when we spoke.
You grew up in San Francisco in the 1970s, and this musical period was obviously important enough for you that it sets off much of what happens in Goon Squad. Can you talk a little about what was happening, and where your head was at during this time?
Music was incredibly important to me as a teenager, which is I’m sure true of many kids in the world, probably. Growing up in San Francisco, I felt very much the power and the shadow of the ’60s over me, all of us did. Anyone who was in high school in 1978 was wishing they were in high school in 1968 in San Francisco. It was like the whole city had a hangover from that time, and we all felt like we missed something crucial.
Then the punk rock thing started happening. The thing that was so shocking about it, especially for kids who were so enamored of the Sixties, was that it was such a complete repudiation of all of that, in attitude, in sound, in style. It was just a great big fuck you to all the things that we had held sacred.
I had two friends who were deeply involved [in it], and both of them had some serious problems. I was the person who got to go, because I knew them. And sometimes I would go by myself, which is sort of funny to me now. I would just go alone to Mabuhay Gardens, and maybe not exchange a word with anyone.
Though I did not want to be a writer at that point — I wanted to be an archeologist– the part of me that is fascinated by subcultures and wants to know their textures and ways, was already really active. And even though I thought I wanted to be an insider, to be cool [laughs], I think what I really wanted was just to be a witness.
It’s funny that despite being there for this moment, you are not copping to having been a participant, but almost a voyeur. What in your mind is the difference?
It’s funny, how those things are determined. The real way that people became insiders was that they got involved with people in the scene. That was always a crossover. A friend of mine dated the bassist of Flipper, so I would go to a lot of Flipper shows with her. I never made any of my own connections — romantic or otherwise — in that world, and I think that’s what made me an outsider. And though on some level I must have wanted that sort of insidery thing, on some level, I must not have wanted it that badly because I did not do it.
Did you have any other experience rubbing up against music scenes or covering them?
Working as a journalist in New York in the ‘90s, I really wanted to write about the music industry. So I had a desire to learn about the business and to be immersed in it, but I wasn’t able to make that happen because Lynn Herschberg was also writing for the Times Magazine, and she was spectacularly connected.
But I did finally get assignment from them for a special issue about people starting out in things, that was kind of the theme – this was sometime in the late ‘90s — and I was going to write about this pair of identical twin rappers, female, called the Dyme; their album was supposed to be coming out imminently. The idea was for me to follow them through that process over a couple of months. I went to this release party for a [Notorious B.I.G.] album [because] I knew they were going … this is one of my most embarrassing journalistic moments. So because I was one of only a handful of white people there, I had trouble doing what I like to do, vanishing into the woodwork and getting a sense of a place. So I went up to somebody and said, “Could you point out Biggie to me?” And he of course turned to me and said, “Biggie’s dead.” I was stupefied. I thought, “Dead? How could he be releasing music if he’s dead?” [laughter] Whatever, it was obvious that I had no idea what I was doing…
Now, when I Google Dyme, they’re nowhere to be found. But they did live in Mt. Vernon, and they did have a recording studio that their dad built for them. So I did use them for context for the sister group Stop/Go [in Goon Squad]. These little bits of journalism and failed assignments have been very helpful in my fiction.
I’ve had that yen to know the industry better, and the sense to write about it as it was happening for all kinds of reasons. Chief among them, the way we’re buying music is changing so radically, and I feel very sympathetic to artists who want to create these epic visions but have to confront the fact that music is bought in these very atomized ways now. The music time-connection is so strong and intertwined, and we all feel that in our own lives, playing music as a way of transporting ourselves back to earlier periods.
Were there other music-related experiences or folks in musicians who were influential to the writing of Goon Squad?
Actually, one person I wanted to mention to you is Jacob Schlichter, the drummer for the band Semisonic, who had that hit “Closing Time.” He wrote an excellent book called So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star. That book was actually critical to Goon Squad because he was the one who got me focused on the idea of pauses in songs. He writes about the mixing of “Closing Time” by Bob Clearmountain, who was known for inserting pauses into songs — to the point that they were called Clearmountain Pauses. He put a Clearmountain Pause into “Closing Time,” and somehow reading about this, for reasons I could not understand clearly at the time, I was riveted and I got very pre-occupied with pauses in songs, and I really geeked out on it. I tried to find more songs with pauses, started visiting websites devoted to songs with pauses. I did not understand why I was becoming interested in it. But then I realized when I began writing the PowerPoint chapter that the pause is where time and music intersect; a pause makes us aware of time passing. And musically, it functions rather the same way: it increases tension and drama by underscoring the transience of the experience.
So, when did you realize that the book you were writing was going to be so focused on music?
Pretty early. I wrote that first chapter, [and] even then it was clear to me that Sasha worked in the music business. There’s a passing mention of her former boss who sprays pesticide in his armpits and eats gold flakes — as soon I wrote that and thought it was a funny line about a decadent producer. But as I finished that story, I thought, “Why does he do that stuff? I want to write about him.” And so I couldn’t even write chapter two without doing research. At the time I did not even understand the difference between analog and digital recording. The idea of Benny loathing digitization had actually come from an essay I read by Neil Young many years ago where he was just appalled at the move to CDs.
I spent a large amount of time talking with an incredibly generous guy named Chuck Zwicky, who is a mixer. He explained a lot of technical stuff to me, and in the course of doing that, he familiarized me with a certain kind of jargon, a way of talking in that industry, which, as a journalist, I have a pretty keen ear for. So as much as anything else, I am writing down phrases, the way people say things, all of which is really helpful. So I wrote the chapter about Benny, and at that point I felt really hooked. It was clear to me at that point that it was all going to be about music, in a way.
A Visit From The Goon Squad is out now through Anchor/Vintage.