x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Jennifer Egan's Pulitzer shows new authors are reinventing US literature

Jennifer Egan's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Visit From The Goon Squad, is representative of a particularly inventive strain in American fiction.

Jennifer Egan, whose novel A Visit from the Goon Squad won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Jennifer Egan, whose novel A Visit from the Goon Squad won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Thanks to its reputation as one of the most venerable of literary awards, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction - which counts the likes of William Faulkner, Harper Lee and Ernest Hemingway among its past winners - has often been seen as slightly predictable and establishment, even boring.

Last year's winner, however, was a real surprise. Tinkers, the debut novel by Paul Harding, had been published by a not-for-profit independent press which hand-sold the copies it had printed. And this week, the 2011 award went to an experimental novel inspired as much by The Sopranos as by Marcel Proust, and one that, incredibly, includes a chapter written in the form of a PowerPoint presentation.

Yet the brilliance of Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad is that it never feels forced or as though it's trying too hard. From the first page it's a readable, interlocking tale tracking the bumpy lives of an old punk rocker turned music mogul and his PA Sasha. It's set, un-chronologically, in the past, present and future. It takes us to Africa and Naples, New York and San Francisco. The judges called it "an inventive investigation of growing up and growing old in the digital age, displaying a big-hearted curiosity about cultural change at warp speed".

All of which certainly tallies with the broader aims of the Pulitzer - to celebrate "distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life". But Egan's victory was also important for another reason. It suggested that mainstream American fiction is becoming more comfortable with, as the judges put it, "inventive" books. A Visit from the Goon Squad doesn't stop at PowerPoint presentations; a celebrity interview in the book comes with intriguing footnotes and Egan imagines a world dominated by text-speak. Such techniques might date the book in years to come, but for now it feels fresh and vibrant, in the same way that, say, Jonathan Safran Foer's 2002 bestseller Everything is Illuminated used broken English and played with typography.

Away from the Pulitzer Prize, there's a real sense that American fiction is where some of the most exciting writing is taking place right now. Staying with Safran Foer, his latest book sees him cut up Bruno Schulz's novel Street Of Crocodiles and create a new "novel" out of the remaining words. Vanity Fair called Tree of Codes "very, very cool".

Meanwhile, the current interest in David Foster Wallace's posthumous novel The Pale King, a narrative-light collection of monologues and sketches, also suggests that it was the way in which he wrote that wowed the critics rather than specifically what he wrote. He seemed to offer new possibilities for American fiction writing. And as his strange mix of fact and fiction often reveals, even memoir is becoming increasingly innovative: the indie musician Kristin Hersh's Paradoxical Undressing reflects its author's mental breakdown by printing large tracts of empty space and muddled sentences.

The success of Hersh's memoir also reflects another recurring theme in 21st-century American writing - music. Egan's book has a completely convincing music scene as its backdrop. One of the other nominees for the Pulitzer was Jonathan Dee, and in The Privileges he has a teenage protagonist playing guitar for a rock band. And possibly the most talked-about literary novel of recent times, Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, features a singer in a punk band who struggles with the notion of success.

It's difficult to know whether the presence of such similar subject matter in these well-regarded contemporary American novels is emblematic of a trend, or merely a coincidence. Certainly, Egan, Dee and Franzen's books all revel in taking a wry look at the way the American middle class live their lives. As such, the ridiculous excesses of the music industry are ripe for exploitation in a comedy or a satire.

What is interesting is that not only did Egan beat Franzen to the National Critics Book Prize earlier this year, but she's also been compared to Wallace. It feels like a fertile time for new American fiction, and the championing of such books - and, happily, their wide readership - suggests that we are looking for something more from our fiction than straightforward storytelling. Egan's PowerPoint presentation is not a gimmick. It works because it is representative of a book that is constantly reminding us of the impact technology has had, not only on the way we live our lives but on how we communicate.

A deserving winner of the Pulitzer, then. And, more importantly, proof that innovative, exciting literary fiction is far from dead in our time-starved digital age.