A Visit from the Goon Squad is one of the year’s most inventive books. Author Jennifer Egan (The Keep, National Book Award-nominated Look at Me) plays effortlessly with structure and form within her interconnected chapters. Each chapter feels very different, and yet entirely part of a cohesive whole: One is written as a footnoted newspaper article; another appears as a Powerpoint presentation. Time shifts back and forward and back again, and the book spans decades, cities, countries, genders, ages.
There was a lot that could that have been lost in the translation from the text to the audio, and yet it’s an astonishing listen — fully realized and engaging. Which is why we’ve selected it as our favorite audiobook of the year.
Jami Attenberg talked with Egan about what reading out loud means to her, the power of beta blockers, and what musical tastes she and her 9-year-old son share.
What was your involvement with the development of the audio book?
I was involved with choosing Roxana Ortega; BBC Audio gave me little snippets of three or four readers (all female) reading a short passage — maybe two minutes long. Several of them sounded quite polished — too polished, in a way. They sounded corporate, in other words; the sorts of voices you’d be soothed by if they were narrating an evacuation process during an emergency, but not the sorts of voices you necessarily wanted to hear reading a story. Roxana’s voice was different; it sounded more human, more flexible, and less processed. Since there is a tremendous range in Goon Squad — of voices, styles, and characters, male and female — I wanted to find a voice that could nimbly encompass those various extremes. Roxana sounded to me like she could do that. And my friends who are audiobook addicts (the ones who drive a lot, in other words), have raved about her performance.
I recently interviewed Maile Meloy, who is a huge audiobook fan because she lives in Los Angeles and thus, drives everywhere. But you’re a New Yorker, so maybe you spend more time reading physical copies of books on the subway instead! Do you have an appreciation at all for listening to other people read their work?
I must be a die-hard New Yorker (though I was born in Chicago and raised in San Francisco) because I have never — repeat, never — owned a car! Therefore my audiobook listening is somewhat limited. I do like listening to people read their work, however, mostly because it helps to answer that mysterious question of how the person and the work relate, or at least it allows me to witness the intersection between them.
Do you enjoy giving readings? Do you get anything out of reading your own work in front of an audience?
I do enjoy giving readings at this point, which is something of a miracle because I had a terrible phobia of public speaking for a long time. As in: I introduced two people who got married and could not bring myself to give a toast at their wedding! When my first novel came out, almost 16 years ago, I knew that I needed to promote it if I had any hope of its selling — I didn’t have a big contract or any real heat from the publisher. Somewhere along the way, I heard of beta-blockers, and got a doctor friend to give me a prescription for a low dose. Beta-blockers are heart drugs; they don’t alter your state of mind, but they keep your heart rate from kicking into overdrive. Because they’re not sedatives, you can’t mentally “feel” that you’ve taken one.
I remember vividly the occasion of my first beta blocker experience: reading poems by Dorothy Parker along with Barbara Feldman at the gigantic Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center. The experience was a revelatory; while my mind still wanted to panic in anticipation of reading to all those people, my body remained calm. And since panic is mostly a physical experience, without the body response, the panic never really materialized. Suffice it to say that beta blockers became a staple part of my public speaking toolkit from that point on. And then an interesting thing began to happen: The more times I spoke in public without panicking, the less I dreaded speaking in public. And without the dread, the need for beta blockers began to subside. After a while all I needed was to have the bottle of pills with me. And then somewhere along the way I lost track of the bottle. That was all many years ago. Now I feel quite comfortable in front of audiences, and truly enjoy reading my work aloud.
Do you ever alter your text before reading it?
I do sometimes make changes for greater brevity, but I try not to be overcritical of what I’m reading because that can be a trap. It’s rare, as a writer, that you actually experience a reader’s experience of your work. Reading aloud lets that happen, and it can actually be rather thrilling.
Do you have any memories of being read to as a child? Do you have favorite books you’ve read to your own children? I’ve had conversations with more than a few editors who believe that as long as people keep reading books to their children, the publishing industry will never die. I should add I very much appreciated how you expressed a semblance of hope for our cultural future at the end of Goon Squad, even if in the future we all spell terribly.
Actually I’ve been a terrible speller from the beginning. Spell Check was made for people like me!
I have lots of memories of being read to and told stories as a child. My mother read to me a lot, and continued to even when I was much older; for example I remember being asked to read Pride and Prejudice in 7th grade and hating it. My mother understandably found that unacceptable, so she read me the book aloud shortly after, and of course I loved it. And my father used to tell me a lot of stories. We had a cast of characters that lasted over years, including someone named Black Bart, who occupied an array of forest enclaves. My father would tell me stories when I was spending the night at his place (my parents divorced when I was two), often in response to some fairly specific instructions from me about what should happen. I guess you could say that I liked to control the narrative from an early age!
I also read a lot to my sons, who are seven and nine. Often I’ll read them things that I don’t think they might gravitate toward on their own, like the Laura Ingalls Wilder books (which they’ve loved so far), or — honestly — things I haven’t read want to read myself, like the Harry Potter books or (right now) Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. I’m lucky in that I don’t get carsick, so when we rent cars and drive anywhere, I function as a human iPod. We’ve read many, many books that way. One area I find weirdly unpleasant is actually telling my kids stories, like my father used to do. I get very caught up in whether the narrative feels “strong” or “fresh,” and needless to say that creates pressure and makes me want to avoid the undertaking. I had a great series going for a while about a witch named Itchibaba who removed her own nose and rode it like a broom, and another about a self-pampering underwater diva named Queen Shelishooshooha. But the storytelling makes me tense. Actually now I have a plan to write a book about female ninjas with my sons and their best friends, a pair of sisters their age. We’ve all had some great ideas, so we’ll see what comes of that.
Goon Squad is a wonderful love letter to popular music, and its power to connect people, and in one chapter you even project what songs from the past your characters will play for their children in the year 2020 (or so). Can you tell us what’s on your playlist right now? Is there anything you hope people will be listening to 50 years from now?
Well I’m slightly ashamed to say that I listen to a lot of Eminem; my nine-year-old son is sharing my iPod (since his shuffle went through the wash), and he’s an Eminem maniac. I have to say that the guy has grown on me, and I truly love Recovery. In fact I think it’s a pretty nuanced musical version of what I was trying to do in Goon Squad — use an array of different styles moods and approaches to tell one story. Others I’ve recently fallen in love with, often via John Shaefer’s “New Sounds” program on NPR: Cornelius, Jose Gonzales, and Jenny Owens Young.
As to what I hope people will be listening to 50 years from now, honestly I just hope there will still be people 50 years from now! And if there are, and they’re well and have gotten global warming under control and managed not to blow up the planet, I hope they’ll still kick back and listen to some Rolling Stones and The Who and Bowie and the Clash…guess what? I want them to listen to what I listened to as a teenager!