PowerPoint Fiction

The book that has impressed us most recently is Jennifer Egan’s A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD. We have hesitated to blog about it because it is so seamlessly good, it is hard to pick apart for lessons about writing. Happily, Egan has spoken up to teach us a thing or two.

GOON SQUAD is a series of thirteen interconnected short stories. Each one has a different main character and voice, ranging from first to third person and to PowerPoint. The stories shift in time from 1979 to the future and are told out of sequence. These are hallmarks of a post modern novel. Yet transcending the form, Egan sweeps this all together into what the New York Review of Books calls “a great, gasping, sighing, breathing whole.” How does she do it?

It is worth noting Egan didn’t set out to write a post modern novel. She was just telling a story, and since it was about a large group of decentralized characters over a long period of time, she opted for a variety of styles and forms. In an essay on her publisher’s Web Site, she writes:

I wanted to provide the greatest possible range of reading experiences: some parts of the book are unabashedly tragic; others are satiric; a few moments are openly farcical. One chapter is written in the form of a celebrity profile; another is in PowerPoint. I tried writing a chapter in epic poetry, but it turns out that to write epic poetry, you have to be a poet.

The PowerPoint chapter, which we have to admit we approached with a sinking feeling, is the heart of the book. PowerPoint is a series of snapshots. In this, it duplicates the structure of the book as a whole. Yet, the chapter is also the book’s emotional core. Written in the voice of a twelve-year-old girl, it tugs at the heart strings in spite of its dry, corporate format. In an interview for EW.com, Egan says the PowerPoint allowed her to be sentimental in ways she couldn’t have been in conventional prose. She goes on to explain how she developed her slides.

I finally settled on a methodology something like this: I’d pinpoint the fictional moment I wanted to portray (PowerPoint only allows for the creation of moments, without connective tissue). Then I’d list what seemed to me the essential component parts of that moment as a series of bullet points. Then I would study those bullet points and try to understand their relationship to each other: Was it cause-and-effect? Was it circular? Was it a counterpoint? An evolution? Having identified the relationship of the parts to each other, I would choose (or, when I really got comfortable, create) a graphic structure to house the bullet points that would clearly manifest their relationship.

Even for authors who are not planning to write fiction in PowerPoint, this is an instructive quote. Putting together something like this would be a good framework for a novel in traditional prose. It would force an author to be very clear and organized. And with key moments delineated, all that would be needed is the connective tissue.