I am a lucky, lucky book lover.
A few months ago, I casually retweeted a @VintageAnchor tweet about a contest to win a call from Jennifer Egan for my book club. And I was one of three people who won the call. A week after that, Jennifer Egan won the Pulitzer for A Visit from the Goon Squad, and a few weeks later my book club actually had a chance to talk to her over the phone about her book.
She was wonderful—very prepared, answered all our questions, and had lots of anecdotes about the book and the writing of it to share. This was our club’s second Egan book (we read The Keep two years ago), and we had plenty of questions about her experimental style.
One thing that particularly stood out for me in this call (Warning: Spoilers ahead) was near the end, when we were discussing the final chapters of the book, set in the future. I mentioned that I found the last chapter absolutely terrifying and asked if Ms. Egan frequently got that reaction. It turns out she does; people find the environmental foreshadowing an eerie possibility for our future. But that wasn’t what I was talking about at all. When I asked the question, I was thinking of a scene between two characters in a restaurant, when a teenage girl begins texting the person sitting across the table from her because she feels too uncomfortable actually speaking to him. I think it speaks to the power of the world Ms. Egan created that there’s plenty of fear to go around, while the chapter is ultimately about music bringing people together and offering them simple hope.
We all have different things that we’re afraid of, but the beauty of using different perspectives in a long piece like this is that you get to understand all the variations of fear that exist. We stay in Sasha’s head for a while and learn her fears, then later we see those fears overcome from another perspective. By the time we get to the end, we’ve faced down so many fears that all that’s left is the unknown future and the vaguely frightening and hopeful possibilities it affords us. That’s one reason why I think the experimental style of this “shnovel” or novel made of short stories (a phrase invented by the great Jack Driscoll) is so captivating is that it offers us this variety of perspectives, not just for the sake of variety as an end itself, but as a means of finding the best way to explore each character.
Not all perspectives work for all characters. Some must be written in third person past tense, others first person present. If you try to match the wrong perspective to the character and the story you’re telling, it just doesn’t work. Your piece won’t sing the way it should. I’ve learned that lesson the hard way myself, when, after a little experimentation, I found myself rewriting the first 50 pages of my grad school novel from a different perspective. You can’t be afraid to experiment, even if it means throwing out work or starting over. It’s the only way to learn how the story wants to be told. The reason Egan was successful with this novel was that she experimented and started again and threw away pieces that weren’t working and ultimately came up with a Pulitzer-prize-winning collection of various viewpoints that all feel honest, rather than form driven or experimental for the sake of experiment.