“It’s the ultra-American narrative”: Jennifer Egan on Trump, sexism and America

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author talks about her new novel, "Manhattan Beach" and what it tells us about the United States today

December 11, 2017
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Jennifer Egan is one of America’s most fascinating modern authors. Visit from the Goon Squad, which won the Pulitzer prize in 2011, was as unconventional as it was moving—each chapter switched focus to another character and another time, flitting between the past, present and future, without ever losing its emotional power.

Her new book, Manhattan Beach, is more orthodox, but no less affecting. Set in New York in the 1930s and early 1940s it follows the lives of Anna Kerrigan, the first female diver at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and Dexter Styles, a gangster, against a backdrop of America’s transformation into a super-power.

Prospect’s Steve Bloomfield met Egan last month in London to discuss her new book, why she writes, and the state of America following the election of Donald Trump and the recent wave of sexual harassment revelations.

Let's start with Trump. What do you think about your country right now?

Egan: The thing I've always been fascinated by about America is the self-inventive aspect of Americans, which in a way is really wonderful—this feeling [that] anyone can do anything, just say “you can do it” and then do it.

And in a way that's really wonderful, that's the Gatsby story, the ultra-American narrative. But there’s an ugly underside to that, which is those same comments but in a different tone. “I can do whatever I want, fuck you get out of the way. It doesn't matter who you are or what you want I'm going to run over you and that’s American.” And that's Donald Trump. He's a very American character, which is incredibly uncomfortable as an American.

There is such a fine line between saying, “I can do anything” and saying, “Fuck you, I can do anything.” He's a thug. He's that sort of bullying, selfish American who wants what they want and doesn't give a damn what it costs anyone else. That is a streak in our culture, a big one.

Did you think it was as big a streak as it turned out to be this time last year?

Egan: Was I aware that there were such numbers of people who would elect someone like that? I guess I really wasn’t. He's so outrageous, he's so clearly incompetent to hold that office. I didn't think that people would be willing to take that risk. Even though they might respond to his rhetoric and his persona and those American elements of it, I am very surprised that they were willing to have him in power.

But I think it’s a measure of how deeply sexist our culture is. “I want to do what I want to do and certainly no woman is going to tell me what I should be doing.” It’s very male. Even though a lot of women voted for him too.

It feels like what I'm talking about in Manhattan Beach. That moment when Dexter Styles thinks about the fact that his inclinations and point of view are already part of the American spirit... When I saw Trump in the White House for the first time I really felt “wow it's like a gangster is going to be president now."

In Manhattan Beach, Styles begins to realise that his world of organised crime is actually entwined with the straighter world of banking. What were you trying to say about the America that's created out of this big moment?

Egan: There's no getting around the fact that America was built by violence. We completely wiped out the native Americans. We have thuggish origins, there’s no question about it. If you look at the history of banking, it’s repellent. The robber barons were brutal. A lot of these industries that now look very refined were built on the backs of people who suffered.

What have you made of the recent debate over sexism and harassment?

Egan: Many women have internalised that it's their own fault—that they invited it somehow. I think a lot of this really goes back to something closer to child abuse. By the time a lot of these women were in the rooms with these men they had probably had a lot of inappropriate things happening to them going back to their childhoods. I know I certainly did—moments in which you could make a fuss but you don’t.

By the time one is an adult one’s already complicit with this kind of behaviour. It’s a lucky girl who makes it all the way to adulthood and has never encountered a situation like that. Very lucky. I don't think I know any. And you're lucky if what you encountered wasn't all out sexual abuse.

You began research for Manhattan Beach long before you wrote Visit from the Goon Squad. What happened?

Egan: I was putting off beginning this book. I had an inkling of how hard it was going to be. My kids were still little and I think I knew on some level what a gigantic undertaking it was going to be. So I started writing what I thought were free-standing stories and then I got caught up in making a book out of them. But the obsession with time in Goon Squad was somewhat informed by my research for Manhattan Beach because I was talking to all these people at the end of their lives and they were reminiscing about their youths. It was impossible not to think about how short life is really.

I was reading letters between this woman named Lucille Calkin and her husband Al and they were both Navy Yard employees and then he joined the Navy and moved to basic training and so they were writing back and forth. She was just an amazing writer. So vivid, full of life, full of details about the Navy Yard. She had a great writing voice and I really had a feeling of her and what it would be like to be in a room with her. And at one point she was fantasising about their future, she'd had a dream about having a child and she said “where will we live? What will our lives be like?” And I thought “god, I wonder what their lives will be like?” I walked over to the nearest computer and I just typed in her name and within sixty seconds of reading this fantasy I was reading her obituary in the newspaper. She had died a few years before, she had had two daughters, Al had survived her. I started reading again but everything read differently from that point on because I knew where it all would go. I ended up using that device in Goon Squad of these leaps into the future that reflect on the present and I think it really started with that moment.

Why do you write? What are you trying to achieve?

Egan: It feels crucially important as I do it. It's more of a feeling—there's not a lot of logic to that notion. If I think hard about whether there's any point to what I'm doing that's usually a sign that I'm not deeply in it. If I'm really deeply in it I don't even ask those questions, it feels urgently important. I had a couple of really bad years working on Manhattan Beach when I could see that it was really not good, which it was not for a long time and I felt, I had big questions about my ability to make it good. In those two years I asked those questions a lot. What's the point? Why am I bothering?

There were so many areas that I needed to understand and I knew nothing about any of them. There was just this long period of tremendous incompetence and that felt crappy. [I had] big questions about whether I could get competent enough to write decent fiction, to do my thing—I was looking for humour, for absurdity, for deep knowledge of the habits of mind of my people. Without that, I'm not going to publish it. I refused to publish a book I didn't feel good about.

Did you feel under any pressure?

Egan: I think I did. I really did imagine the opprobrium that would greet a horrible book. Which is also really unhelpful. All I had was this voice in my head telling me Goon Squad was a fluke, you're played out, it's over.”

I actually took solace in the knowledge that fundamentally it just didn't matter whether it was good or bad. This idea that I was going to disappoint people is just so grandiose. What, people are going to cry if they don't like my book? That's nuts. The only person who'd cry is me and the people who had paid me. That was a total relief.

What will you do next? Is the current state of America or the world at the back of your mind when you're thinking about which projects to do?

Egan: I know what I'm going to try to do. I worked on a first draft of another book while I worked on Manhattan Beach. I maybe have 150 pages. The next one, I hope, will be this companion volume to Goon Squad. We'll see if I can pull it off.

I'm excited to think about it in the era of Trump. I don't know if he's ever mentioned or how exactly I'll account for him but it's an interesting development. I want to follow a lot of the young characters in Goon Squad so I have absolutely no choice but to go into the future.

Which characters make a return?

Egan: Noreen, the neighbour of Bernie and his wife. There's another chapter for Ted, Sasha’s uncle. Another character who's very important is Bix. He's the guy who's online before anyone else—he's in the story of Sasha's friend who dies in the river. He marries Sasha’s friend Lizzie. I think he's a very important character. I'm very interested in Sasha's autistic son Lincoln. I'm very interested in Mindy, the wife of Lou who goes to Africa with him, and I'm interested in the two daughters they have.

One of the chapters in Visit from the Goon Squad was written entirely in Powerpoint—will you be using it again?

Egan: Powerpoint, no. Powerpoint is really hard to write fiction in. It's so atomised. It's almost impossible to portray action in Powerpoint. It's also incredibly cold. I tried other things in Powerpoint which didn't work. It's really not a good fiction writing tool.

Any other styles? Twitter? [Egan’s short story, Black Box, which was published by the New Yorker in 2012, was written as a series of tweets]

Egan: Twitter has some advantages, but there aren’t that many stories that require structural units that short.

Although you now have 280 characters rather than 140

Egan: I don't think Black Box would have been as good at 280 so I'm glad that happened later. it would be a little too explained. What I found inspiring about it was the odd poetry of these very short lines. It was such a pleasure to read that. I don't think I would have written Black Box if it was 280. It was strange how rarely I had to tweak the lines. I wrote it by hand and generally they were just right as written. The form really did inspire me.

You’re also thinking of writing a memoir.

Egan: I would like to, and that comes directly out of Manhattan Beach. I just felt so grateful for the stories people told about their past. Oral history is another way of capturing those stories and it’s such a growing field. We're not going to have any letters, so we'd better get going with our oral history. We can at least record people because there's going to be no written record of these lives.

An email archive isn't quite the same, is it?

Egan: I had all of my email stored from when I first had an email address on my hard drive and then there was one time when I was upgrading my operating system and it all became inaccessible. I do think at some point I should do my part to witness what I've seen in my lifetime. And also, just to be totally honest, I'd want to wait for certain family members to be you know, no longer with us. Ha! Not to be morbid, but I want to wait for the last possible minute.

So you can write honestly?

Egan: So I can just write honestly, yeah. I'm going to have to live ‘til I'm very old to get to that memoir because I have a lot I need to do first. It’s reasonable to assume health and productivity to the age of 75, that's just statistically likely, although I still want to (knocks on wood) because I know a lot of people who've not had good luck. We don't really think we're going to die, that's one of the nice coping mechanisms humans have.