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Novel Ideas

For most people, having their wallet stolen is a nuisance. For author Jennifer Egan, it’s inspiring.

“I have been robbed so many times and in so many ways,” she said, remembering a particularly creative thief who stole her wallet and then called her, impersonating a Citibank employee, in order to elicit her PIN number. “She was really good,” Egan admitted. Years later, she wrote about a sticky-fingered character called Sasha in A Visit from the Goon Squad, which won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award in 2011. 

“It’s nice to come back to this block,” Egan said while discussing Goon Squad last fall, at an event organized by FIT’s English and Speech Department. She lived on West 28th Street for five years, though her sojourn in hyper-stylish Chelsea did little for her fashion sense. “I’ve never been to a sample sale. I think I would hate it,” she said. “I’m almost always wearing things that other people have given to me”—even clothing from her mother, she confessed.

Her visual sense, however, is strong. For each novel she writes, she conjures an image that corresponds to its structure. For one of her previous books, Look at Me, it was a figure eight, while Goon Squad “is a tangle of yarn or string,” she said. No surprise—it’s a collection of linked stories, each featuring a different character, tone, and style (one consists entirely of PowerPoint slides).

Egan’s writing has been called “eerily prescient.” For example, one of the characters in Look at Me—completed months before September 11—is an Islamic fundamentalist terrorist. The future portrayed in Goon Squad seems bleak. Strollers are banned in public, lest they hinder an evacuation, and tweeters are paid to manipulate public opinion. The author, however, remains optimistic. “Human beings are amazingly resourceful. Sometimes we’re a little slow to figure out when to use our resources to solve problems . . . but once we do, we usually solve them.”

As for the future of literature, she believes the past can offer direction. “There have been times in our literary history when novels were doing more than a lot of novels do now. If you look at the 19th century, those novels were big, swaggering, bold, flexible animals,” she said. “My feeling is, take chances!”

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