A Doorway to Fiction with Jennifer Egan

February 22, 2012

Beginning again and again and again explaining composition and time is a natural thing.
- Gertrude Stein, “Composition as Explanation” (1926).

Photo by Adam Krause.


     Jennifer Egan, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, visited Spokane’s Gonzaga University last month as part of the school’s 2011-2012 Visiting Writers Series. Egan read the short story, ”Found Objects” as an excerpt from her novel; however, the work originally appeared in The New Yorker as a short story detailing a confession surrounding the kitchen bathtub of a kleptomaniacal woman after a shag on the carpet. A May 2011 Paste Magazine book review of Goon Squad by writer Elissa Elliot reads, “She made the remarkable transition from a good novelist to an ‘unclassifiable novelist,’ executing what seemed to be a literary experiment (and accomplishment).” So, what’s all the fuss about, exactly?

     A Visit from the Goon Squad is a book about time, consecutive chapters appear out of succession, the chronology is discontinuous, and the plot extends in circles. Goon Squad progresses from Marcel Proust’s protracted span through duration, a noted influence on Egan’s work, to an unanchored dwelling in the continuous present. This unanchored dwelling is reflective of a contemporary relationship with time. This relationship has emerged, and is emerging, from the saturation of our daily lives with technology–characterized by virally proliferated images, always accessible digital archives, and disembodied communication. Egan’s novel asks, has modern, digital society become unhinged from serial time? Through the kinetics of sensational media, decomposed and decoupaged  history, and slippery inter-net identities, the answer seems to be: yes.

       If our relationship with time has changed, how has it changed our relationship with place? In a Q&A proceeding her reading, Egan described where her fiction begins: “The real doorway for me into fiction is a time and a place, an atmosphere of time and place, [. . .] conjuring actively from a place.” Place is the origin of Egan’s creative process. In his book exploring the place-world, Getting Back Into PlaceEdward S. Casey, argues for an intrinsic linkage between time and place: “We say that things last in time, yet so do places” (Casey, 33). Time cannot be separated from place. Time must be measured from a site where duration occurs–this is place. The discontinuity and circularity of the postmodern experience of time has made, is making, the experience of place fragmented and incidental.

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Q&A with Jennifer Egan at Gonzaga University

       Fiction can contort and amplify time through the construction of literary images. American modernist poet Ezra Pound describes an image as “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time, [. . .] the presentation of such a ‘complex’ instantaneously . . . [creates a] . . . sense of freedom from time limits and space limits.” Fiction, in its potential to create  an instantaneous complex, liberates time from place. Egan uses chronology in A Visit from the Goon Squad to communicate a suspension of time in which “the past is so readily available and so easily mixed with the present that the sense of chronology and history is eroded; it feels as if it is all now.” Egan, in other words, is referring to something known as the continuous present.

“Locomotion vers 18702″ – Etienne-Jules Marey

     Gertrude Stein, American poet and art collector, first used the phrase “continuous present” in her 1926 essay “Composition as Explanation.” Egan rejects an explicit connection with Stein’s continuous present, other than her husband’s admiration for Stein’s theater, in the concepts behind A Visit from the Goon Squad, but similarities exist. For Stein, time is the essential component of intelligible experience because all observation is an act of remembrance. Immediate experience, the continuously present, is incomprehensible. Stein describes the continuous present:

“creating the composition in the beginning was groping toward a continuous present, a using everything a beginning again and again and then everything being alike then everything very simply everything was naturally simply different.”

To identify a single, discrete object as that object, to see its similarities and differences with other objects, requires the observer to “remember” and see “resemblances” between this that and other thats.  Intelligibility requires memory, which necessitates an experience in place through time. The continuously present experience is of the immediate thatness of a thing without comparisons to—thinking about, remembrance of, classification with—other past experiences.

“Birds” – Etienne-Jules Marey

      Manuel De Landa, professor of contemporary philosophy and science at the European Graduate School, describes a geologic view of history in contrast to the linear conception of history in his book, A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History. A geologic history takes the idea of time to be sedimentary, layers of accumulation which form in strata. History cannot be traced back in a straight line across the surface of history, instead the visible geologic flow of  deposited evidence (erosion, rifting, deposition, magmas, lavas) makes up the sequence of time. According to the geologic view, time is a plane of accumulation not an arrow of infinite length.


     Geologic history is a continuous present. Past is displayed in the present, the present submerges beneath the past. Time is the continual accumulation of past sediments, all now. The continuous present, is visible in A Visit from the Goon Squad; narrative accumulates a topology of meaning in which events are not connected linearly, but are manifested as depositions, erosions, rifts, and eruptions. Perhaps the way Egan expresses this way of thinking about time in A Visit from the Goon Squad is what has made her an “unclassifiable novelist.” Perhaps place has become, and is becoming, geologically active.


Chodat, Robert. “Sense, Science, and the Interpretations of Gertrude Stein.” Modernism/modernity. 12.4 (2005): 581-605. Muse. Web.
Egan, Jennifer. A Visit from the Goon Squad. New York: Anchor Books, 2010. Print.
De Landa, Manuel. A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History. New York: Zone Books, 1997. Print.
Pound, Ezra. “‘A Retrospect’ and ‘A Few Don’ts’.” Pavannes and Divagations.  New York: W W Norton & Co Inc, 1958. Print.
Stein, Gertrude. Composition as Explanation. London: Hogwarth Press, 1926. Print.

Posted by J.W. Trull.

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