Semi-Vacation  |   We're publishing archive favorites and fresh headlines through Labor Day

Ads via The Deck

Birnbaum v.

Jennifer Egan

Our man in Boston sits down to chat with author Jennifer Egan about her new novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad, and what it’s like to write in PowerPoint.

Photograph by Robert Birnbaum

Having first spoken to novelist Jennifer Egan in the early 1990s for her first novel, The Invisible Circus, and then her story collection, Emerald City, it had been some time since I paid attention to her writing—this despite numerous articles appearing frequently under her byline as New York Times Magazine cover stories.

Now, with her recent critically lauded novel A Visit From the Goon Squad, I took an opportunity to continue the conversation we began nearly 20 years ago, this one leavened by my sharing with Egan the experience of having sons in Little League—no small common denominator as you will see in the chat below.

A Visit From the Goon Squad is also distinguished by including a section created in PowerPoint, for which Egan, as is her habit, articulates thoughtful arguments for this flaunting of orthodoxy. We also spend time discussing the truth of interviews, age and reading certain kinds of literature, playing with the facts in writing nonfiction (and fiction), and Daniel Boorstin’s seminal book The Image. And, of course, much more.

 

* * *


Robert Birnbaum: You do journalism, right? So, you know, as a freelancer you forage around—

Jennifer Egan: Yeah, well, especially now.

RB: Anyway, so let’s talk about the book world, or books, or your book. Or you.

JE: We’re narrowing it down.

RB: See if you can follow this—it may get convoluted. Carolyn Kellogg, who writes for the L.A. Times book blog, wrote about doing a feature on Bret Easton Ellis and was concerned about whether her interview with him was original. She read three or four others of recent vintage, and when she engaged him she felt as if he was presenting her what he had presented to other journalists. She called into question whether you get anything that is fresh and worthwhile. I thought about the interview that takes place in your novel, by the fallen journalist—

JE: Ha.

RB: Your presentation was both clever and plausible. I could see that—though I don’t read interviews—it seemed like something that was publishable.

JE: I would believe anything. Let’s put it this way: I would hesitate to call anything satire in our culture. Or futuristic. I kept saying when I was working on my novel Look at Me, “It’s kind of futuristic and it’s a satire.” Now it reads, I would imagine, as slightly passé verisimilitude. [laughs]

RB: You think?

JE: I don’t know, I don’t know, I’m being a little flip. Many of the things I imagined as strange, mad conjurings of my own came to pass in a perfectly ordinary way in the time I was writing it.

RB: What does that tell you?

JE: I think it says if I want to write satire I have to write a lot faster. [both laugh]

RB: The times catch up with you.

JE: They overtook me. Anyway, that is an interesting question.

RB: You probably have done both—interviewed and, of course, been interviewed.

JE: I’ve interviewed far more people than I have been interviewed.

RB: Really.

JE: Sure. When I write a piece for the Times magazine I interview 70 or 80 people.

RB: Those are informational interviews—more like depositions.

JE: True, true.

RB: I am speaking about the Q&A-type profiles.

JE: No, I haven’t done too many of those. It’s a good question—as the person on the other end, I feel the desire to be fresh and original so much, partly because I identify so much with the interviewer. One thing that makes it so hard—many interviews are conducted online. You get basically the same questions. There is no frisson of human interaction to bring things to life. I remember you guys [Birnbaum and Henry Santoro, back in the early ’90s—ed.] in that little sound room. [laughs]

RB: Yeah, yeah.

JE: I don’t remember what we said, but I remember thinking, “They’re crazy.”

RB: We had fun—we were looking to have fun and be engaging. Apropos of interviews, the Virginia Quarterly had a piece on the preference of writers for written literary interviews, quoting William Maxwell that they helped to protect writers from being misquoted or having quotes lifted out of context.

JE: Well, that’s true. We have total control. But it’s sort of dead—basically, one is having a conversation with oneself.

RB: Right.

JE: It’s true—it removes all of the ambiguity about what you are actually saying and how it will sound transcribed. But in a way, that ambiguity is what made the conversation alive.

RB: Exactly. I’ve interviewed a large number of writers in 20 years. The ones that were worthless or unproductive amount to less than a handful, disconnected and unengaged.

I don’t like to feel like I am being tailed by the last thing I have done.JE: [puts on sunglasses] I hope it’s OK that I am putting these on. My eyes are sore.

RB: Sure. I’ll put mine on, too.

JE: [laughs] Then we’ll be really cool. The woman who was talking about Bret Ellis—was this an online interview? Did she actually have a conversation with him?

RB: It was in person. She described the whole encounter—he comes to the door, wearing jeans and no shoes, and he does this and does that—giving the appearance that Ellis scripted out his performance.

JE: Interesting.

RB: I disagreed with what I thought was her suggestion that it was too difficult to get something resembling an authentic exchange. I do think that there are too many so-called interviewers, looking for the same thing and having no apparent idea of how to have a conversation.

JE: Yeah, I would have to say it’s really up to her to find a different way. It’s not his job, really. Although, ideally, one tries. I don’t like repeating myself very much.

RB: I don’t know—unless you’re a Shakespearean actor, why would you want to say the same thing over and over?

JE: No, it’s very boring. Was she blaming him or just throwing up her hands at the whole enterprise?

RB: She wasn’t throwing up her hands. She was raising the issue[s] and then leaving the question unresolved—she wondered what she got in her interaction and more rhetorically, “Was there a real Bret Easton Ellis?” leaving open the possibility that there was not much there. But that can be telling, too—you can profile someone of high name recognition, and the fact is, they are a boring or insufficiently interesting person. Which can be the case when someone is covered because of his or her stature or current notoriety.

JE: There is only so much you can do. I’ve had that experience, too, as a journalist: people who seem to be giving me a lot of access, which is exciting for a reporter, and yet when I actually transcribe their words I discover that it reads as very generic and really without life. That’s always a crushing moment. [laughs] You realize you need a different subject.

RB: After the initial audit I rarely reread my chats—I like this stance that Keith Jarrett takes—I read about this in a profile by Frank Conroy—where Jarrett claims that before he begins a concert, he will sit at the piano on stage and clear his mind of musical thoughts so that he can begin improvising spontaneously. I find that useful in many ways.

JE: Yes, absolutely. That’s certainly what I try to do when I am writing. I don’t like to feel like I am being tailed by the last thing I have done. So I like very much to feel like, “OK, everything I’ve done is off limits. It’s gone. So here I am alone, now what? That’s good.”

RB: So, A Visit From the Goon Squad. There is another thing I really liked that you did—wish you had done it more. There are points early in the book where you skip ahead in time. You write the character who has been described in present time, and then you write that they will be doing this or such and such, though with great specificity, in 20 or 30 years, and towards the end of the story you catch up and are now in the present that was forecast. When I read it at first as your prediction—I found myself immediately acknowledging that I very much liked that. Have you done that often in your writing?

JE: No. One of the ground rules I had about writing this was that each individual piece had to be very different from all the others. So the piece in which I really do that, in which I really make a habit of that, is “Safari,” and I do it pretty much throughout. I guess I do it again one more time toward the end of the book and then in the next chapter I catch up with it because I reach into Sasha’s future in Naples, and then in the next chapter we are in that PowerPoint which is actually happening in her future. So yeah, it was something I was interested in for a long time. I would get little flecks of it in other people’s work. They would just make a little leap and I would feel this huge excitement every time I encountered one of those and I found myself thinking, “I just want to write a piece in which we are making those leaps all the time, almost in an overbearing way.” We are constantly, or relatively often, reminded of what’s going to happen much, much later. So the piece in which I did that was “Safari.” It would be interesting to do that more often. I am thinking about doing that because my next book is really more of a historical novel—

RB: You’re still writing?

JE: The shock, isn’t it? Not a lot lately, let me tell you. Anyway, I think it will be amore conventional novel in certain ways, with a more central thrust than this one, which is very polyphonic. And since it is a historical novel, but since I know I don’t want it to be as simple as, “We are now in the past. Everyone is living at this time,” I know I don’t want the relationship to the present to be that simple. I guess in a certain way—artificial, is the way I would put it. So there may be a way to play more with that. But according to the rules of this book, to have done that more often would have been to violate my basic ideas, which was that each piece had its own set of ground rules and this was the ground rule, really, for only one of them.

RB: How or why did you come upon the idea of diagramming a chapter?

JE: I am not that computer literate. I write by hand. I am not really a computer writer. Except as a journalist—then I do write on a computer. I became really interested in PowerPoint, which is the program I use. I notice that people were referring to it all the time—like they would say, “I did this in PowerPoint.” And the seminal moment for me came when I was reading the Times about the 2008 election about how the Obama campaign had this amazing turnaround. They were doing really badly and then suddenly they were doing much better. There was all this postmortem about the change of their narrative. Another word—

RB: Banality?

JE:—that is used so often that I’m furious about it. But anyway, apparently the turning-point document in that campaign was a PowerPoint, and it was actually called a PowerPoint in the Times. Capitalized. So basically, it was branded. They didn’t say slide show. They didn’t say a memo—all those generic words for presentation among colleagues. So then I thought, “Well, that’s really fascinating.” I have a sister who works at a consulting firm. And she told me she thinks in PowerPoint. She creates at least one slide every day. So basically, when she is taking in information she is already thinking how to schematize it for PowerPoint, because that is basically the communicative device used in her world. And so I found myself thinking, “What would it be like to do fiction in that program?” It was actually very difficult.

RB: I’m sure. Working with that, you either grasp it intuitively or—

JE: For me, there was no way I was going to grasp it intuitively. I had never used anything like that, but I did find that once I had done some legwork in terms of learning it, it paid back some dividends. It became easier and, in some moments, fun, I have to admit. I didn’t think it was possible. What became interesting about it was trying to understand the structure of the fictional moment and then represent that structure. Of course, if you are just using PowerPoint slide templates, the kinds of structures that you can convey are limited. They are divided into categories—relationship structures, process structures, hierarchies—

RB: How do you edit? How do you revise in that application?

The particular story I write in PowerPoint, I couldn’t imagine doing it as a conventional narrative.JE: The same way you would in any other document. In my case, a hard copy, marking it up and then inserting changes, and I did a lot of revising in the PowerPoint. In fact I have a color version of that on my website, which you can view as a slide show with the pauses. I have to say I think that is so cool. You can hear the particular pauses with 10 seconds of music around them. Even in that version, I have made a few changes beyond what’s in the book. So you can totally revise. Looking back, I do wonder why I was determined to write in PowerPoint. It’s hard for me to even fully recapture the urgency of that goal. But I think, really, in the end, the answer was thematic. The book was so much about pauses, and it’s so constructed around pauses—as you say, there are gaps and leaps. This is all different ways of saying there are things that are missing in the book—and in a way PowerPoint is a program that’s built around giving us little snapshots without the connective tissue. It’s all pauses. In some ways I sensed—

RB: All ellipses or the space between—

JE: It’s all ellipses basically, except for a few clear snapshots. My impulse to do it came unconsciously from a sense that this program would let me reveal my structural principles very openly.

RB: Would you say now that this, using PowerPoint, gained a certain facility in depicting a story—you can look at a story and see it in that application?

JE: You mean, do I now think more in PowerPoint fictionally?

RB: Exactly.

JE: It seems no. For example, I am trying to conduct an interview with someone in PowerPoint. We already had an in-person interview and now he is sending me questions in PowerPoint and I need to answer them in that way, and I am actually finding it extremely difficult. I feel like my brain has just moved away from that.

RB: Maybe it’s not a bilateral application. Maybe it doesn’t work as—

JE:—a conversation?

RB: What happens when people do a project together?

JE: It should be bilateral. It’s very funny. Our conversation is about the question of how to use things like PowerPoint and have them feel integral rather than gimmicky. Which is a huge question. The reason I am having trouble thinking in PowerPoint anymore in a way, at least, provides answer to that question. Which is: The only reason to use something like that is if it is the only way you can tell that particular story. And that particular story that I write in PowerPoint, I couldn’t imagine doing it as a conventional narrative. But in the end, I’d rather just have a conversation. So trying to force into a PowerPoint does feel—it feels precious. I am actually having an insight because I am actually saying this in PowerPoint. [laughs] It’s part of this conversation. It feels like we are trying to translate it into Japanese for the heck of it and then translate it back to English. But there is no reason for that. It’s not necessary. If it isn’t necessary, it shouldn’t be done. That’s going too far—you can do it, but it may feel cute.

RB: What’s the point?

JE: Exactly. It has the danger of seeming precious.

RB: Chip Kidd got some mileage out of writing his novels in Quark. That’s a far cry from what you have done. Lately, I have been thinking about the effect of reader’s ages and the kind of stories to which that can relate. I was reading Joseph Epstein’s recent story collection, and many of the characters were in their golden years, retiring or close to that—widowers or dating widows. And I was thinking about why or how would a 30-year-old read this kind of story. Or how would they relate to this…

JE: Hmm—good question. I feel like there is no reason why readers shouldn’t be able to—we certainly will leap across cultures, for example. We don’t have to be from Ireland to appreciate William Trevor. I would never say that anything is impossible—

RB: Did you read Everyman by [Philip] Roth?

JE: No, but I have heard a lot about it. I don’t think there is any reason that we can’t. But when you have a story collection and all of the stories take among people in their 60s, you might have a harder time attracting a 30-year-old.

RB: One story was about an editor at a small political magazine and his experience of knowing a younger, very talented man who marries a woman who is not only rich, but whose father is very powerful. As the narrator gives us the story of the younger man’s life, it is quite clear we are getting a different view. So it’s not monophonic in its presentation, but the characters do present a clear attitude of experience, deliberation, wisdom.

JE: I would never say never to anything—

RB: Publishing is so segmented. Only the big book escapes demographic pigeonhole—which is, perhaps, why they are big. Vampires and crime families and so on.

JE: I never think about these issues, I have to tell you. I just feel like for me to sit there and think, “Gee what’s going to attract whom?”—I don’t give those things a thought. I am led completely by my own curiosity into things that seem alive to me. And I hope that other people will share that interest. But I just don’t think about these market research issues.

RB: Right, and no reason that you should. I’m sorry I mentioned the notion of the Big Book. I wasn’t interested in matters of market research—

JE: I don’t think Justin Cronin—I assume you are talking about The Passage—I don’t think he was thinking about it that way either.

RB: Based on what I know of his first two books, I agree.

JE: I guess what I am saying is that these are the kinds of questions I sometimes think about as a reader, but as a writer I would go further than saying—if that’s part of the clearing of the mind which makes it all possible, which you alluded to earlier.

RB: When I am reading—which I spend a fair amount of time doing—I am wondering not only after I am done being nourished by the story, I wonder about its place and the writer’s place in the scheme of things.

JE: Right, that’s reasonable.

RB: I wonder why some writers whose talent and accomplishments I admire don’t have larger followings.

JE: And you think the segmentation may be part of it.

RB: Uh huh. In Joe’s case, I think his essays, his nonfiction has been more successful—he wrote Snobbery and a number of intelligent monographs. A book on friendship. I really have enjoyed his fiction—it’s quite engaging. It goes back to the roulette wheel of literary success.

JE: Maybe so. [pause] I don’t know. Luck is a huge part of everything. Maybe, as you say, it’s the segmentation of the literary marketplace.

RB: At this point you have three novels and a story collection—something like that?

JE: If you call this a novel, it’s my fourth.

RB: What do you want to call it?

JE: I just call it a book.

RB: It doesn’t say—as is often the case—A Visit From the Goon Squad: A Novel?

JE: It does not. I really wanted to leave it vague. It doesn’t really conform to the preconceptions of a novel. Even my own preconceptions. Maybe those preconceptions are a little more narrow than they should be. But I felt like there was no reason to deceive anyone. It seems like one of those odd ways to categorize works.

RB: Certainly, we see more books these days which are an assemblage of stories that are interconnected, which sometimes are called “novels.”

JE: To me, this feels quite different than those. I was pretty eager for it not to be perceived as that. You could call it that, I guess. Those books often have a consistency of tone and focus that this not only doesn’t have—I guess what I am saying is, the reason that it is not a conventional novel is because I wanted to have more range and more dissonance, more contrast and less centrality than I thought I could get away with in a novel. Therefore, connected stories, to me, just connotes a very quiet linking of similar takes, and that feels more of a misrepresentation than calling it a novel. I prefer “novel” over that—but whatever. People are going to call it what they want.

RB: That may be implicit when we think of connected stories, but until you said this I don’t know that I had any particular feeling—I am not sure I even notice these distinctions. I am not at all concerned with distinguishing fiction from nonfiction anymore.

JE: I feel concerned about that.

RB: There’s a book by Jake Silverstein, Nothing Happened and Then It Did, which flipped between stories and reporting very easily—and unless you paid close attention it didn’t seem to matter. So why are you concerned?

If we say, “It’s all subjective and we can’t ever really get to the truth, so let’s just tell a good yarn,”—that’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater.JE: Well, as a journalist I think it’s incredibly important, certainly for me, and I actually think for everyone, to be clear about whether you are actually trying to represent real things and real people, or whether you are making it up for story. To me, blurring those lines is a disservice to journalism—certainly research pieces. I don’t buy the idea that, “Well, I sort of created a compilation.” Or, “I kind of combined two scenes.” I don’t feel comfortable with that.

RB: You find James Frey’s efforts objectionable? Stephen Glass?

JE: Frey bothers me less because he was writing about his own life, and he made a bunch of stuff up. He’s certainly not the first memoirist to have done that. Glass, or the guy at the Times whose name I’m forgetting [Jayson Blair—ed.]—that kind of thing is pretty unpleasant.

RB: And the reporter at the Washington Post, Janet Cooke—

JE: She was the one that wrote about the heroin addict—I was a child when that happened, but yeah, they pop up every now and then. But I have heard people defend them, saying, “What’s the difference if it held on to the essence of the truth? What does it really matter, the details?” I don’t agree with that.

RB: It’s a question of whether you want to allow the writer the freedom to decide what the essence is—someone else is deciding how the story goes. What is the criterion for judging their reliability?

JE: That’s exactly my point—there are no criteria. I feel like, write fiction if you are so eager to make stuff up. Don’t call it nonfiction.

RB: Have you read David Shields’s book Reality Hunger?

JE: I have it and I am curious about it, but I haven’t read it yet.

RB: I don’t find it controversial—it’s a rather mild manifesto.

JE: It became part of this whole question about using material without attribution, etc. I am curious about it, but basically I agree with you—it sounds a little bit like a tempest in a teapot. How disturbing is Bob Woodward’s accounts of high-level conversations or reportage of the inner dialogues of policy makers—none of which are readily verifiable?

RB: That doesn’t mean that they didn’t happen? How do you know?

JE: I have no choice but to trust him. That’s why I believe in agreeing to a set of standards and all trying to adhere to them, because if you take one step away from that you are just in a freefall. That’s not to say they are not abused—you may get hoodwinked by trusting someone who isn’t to be trusted. I feel like if we go the other direction and say, “It’s all subjective and we can’t ever really get to the truth, so let’s just tell a good yarn,”—that’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

RB: I like what Alan Furst said. I asked him what his sense of responsibility to the factual details was and he said he tried to get them right because “so much blood had been shed over them.”

JE: Someone is going to know. That’s what I always think.

RB: On the other hand, you have a writer like Tom Franklin setting a story in 1890s Alabama and he tells of people coming to his readings, saying things like, “Armadillos didn’t cross the Mississippi River until 1900,” or the shape of a certain brand of tobacco tin was round, not rectangular.

JE: I love that people care. If you have done your research and you decide you are going to make it up and do it differently as a fiction writer, you have that prerogative. As a journalist you don’t. I mean, I make up everything as a fiction writer.

RB: You are writing a historical novel—what do you mean by that?

JE: I have done a fair amount of research about certain areas, and I am going to be setting part of my book in a different time.

RB: What’s your responsibility to the details of people’s lives at that time?

As a fiction writer, at least I am doing research to free myself, to feel confident to fool around.JE: I don’t have any obligation as a fiction writer—none. I don’t have an obligation, but for me, personally, I would like to get it right. Why not? Because someone will know. It’s good to know when you are taking a flight of fancy. And also, on a deeper level, I just don’t have the confidence to pull off setting something up in another time without knowing a hell of a lot about that time. I just couldn’t do it.

RB: When Edward Jones wrote The Known World over 12 years, he had intended to research, having compiled a list of 40 books. And it turned out he didn’t read any of them. He made up things that you would have a difficult time distinguishing from real facts.

JE: I’m a huge believer in making things up—that’s basically how I function. I don’t really write from my own life at all. I’m all for that and I champion him. I think that’s great. The point is that as a fiction writer you decide, looking for your own comfort level. If you can’t bear the thought of someone walking into a reading pointing out that an armadillo wouldn’t have crossed that line, then you are the one who is ultimately done by the research.

RB: You write this book and you have details that are called out as you present the book during its charm initiative. Your answer to various quibbles and questions is? “Too bad?”

JE: Hypothetically, in the book I haven’t written yet? It’s a little bit hard to project that far, since I am thinking about this book. I would have one of two answers. One, “I know, but I made a leap for my own reasons.” Or, “I didn’t know that. Very interesting. Let me think about that.” Maybe I would make a correction—you can keep tinkering if you go into further editions. I have had facts pointed out that were wrong, in various things I have written. I don’t love to find out that a fact is wrong—it’s not that I don’t care. But basically as a fiction writer, at least I am doing research to free myself, to feel confident to fool around. If that point arrives after reading 40 books, great. Or before reading 40 books, then good, too. Maybe reading the 40 books becomes hampering.

RB: I think [E.L.] Doctorow says something about doing as little research as necessary—

JE: Yeah, boy, although his stuff feels pretty heavily researched. Who’s to say? That feeling of being heavily researched is what we’re going for, but sometimes it is easier to achieve that feeling without actually having done as much research as you think you should.

RB: Why the expectation when, as a fiction writer, you make stuff up and still people get worked up about what is in novels? They are clearly fiction, and still readers get upset at the “facts” in novels. So what?

JE: If readers feel that a writer is going for historical accuracy and they happen to know that something is wrong—I understand that. There are moments that I notice—I had never read the James Frey books but when A Million Little Pieces was first shown to be fake, I read some excerpts from it in Smoking Gun. And I had done a lot of research on prison life and prison systems for my last book, The Keep, and to me, his prison stuff felt really off. Indeed, it turned out he had spent basically one hour in a prison.

But I was surprised that no one questioned that. For example, the prisoners were just loafing around all the time. That’s not really how it is in prison. You are not allowed to do that. At least from all of my research—prisoners are kept pretty busy. They don’t want them loafing around—that’s how you end up with trouble. I would have probably given [Frey] him the benefit of the doubt, but I was struck, even believing it to be true, by how different it was from my sense of prisons based on my research. On the other hand, the world is big. One person sees one thing and one person see another and both happen. It’s not like I would have said, “Aha!” But I was struck by that. Didn’t anyone notice? A lot of people know about prisons, it’s not that arcane.

There was something I read recently, and they had gotten something wrong and I found it irritating—maybe that’s the answer to your question. It’s an irritant, since what a fiction writer is asking of a reader is suspension of disbelief and a kind of plunging in. An irritant of a factual error that doesn’t feel like a flight of fancy, that just feels kind of slipshod and makes it harder to suspend disbelief and therefore takes me out of the story. That’s probably why you have people raising their hands and talking about armadillos.

My fear is that people read more superficially. They are much more distracted.RB: I was reading a book of essays by Curtis White called The Middle Mind, and in it he mentions William Shawn as the publisher of the New Yorker. Somehow I was irritated, but not at the writer. I felt that any decent editor would have caught that—it’s almost common knowledge—

JE: Yeah, it is surprising.

RB: So I wrote White and he never responded. [laughs] I thought I was respectful about it.

JE: That’s sort of annoying, actually. Probably more than it should be.

RB: Who knows why the reader wants it to be what they know it to be?

JE: I feel like—having just said you can make it all up and who cares—I feel like if I caught a mistake and the answer to my question about it were, “I just decided to do it this other way,” I would still be irritated. [laughs] I would have to look at a real situation actually.

RB: I can’t explain why I am bothered. On the other hand, I also have a penchant for being on time—where many, if not most, people are not. I am not a superior being for it—that’s just a basic personality trait or quirk.

JE: I agree. I hate being late. I feel like I am worrying and sweating about being late and I’ll get there and the other person is not there. [laughs]

RB: I was married to someone like that.

JE: [laughs]

RB: Do you feel any gloom about the state of literature and the publishing business?

JE: I do. I do. I feel a kind of free-floating gloom about it I can’t quite pinpoint. I’m very wary of that kind of gloom. It’s very suspicious—I feel like often what one is bemoaning is simply a change from the way things were when one was younger. So really, what one is bemoaning is just getting older. So I question those feelings, but I do have them. My fear is that people read more superficially. They are much more distracted—

RB: Here’s a question. Is it possible that mainstream entertainment was as stupid when we were growing up as it is now?

JE: In some ways, I am a bad judge because I don’t watch television.

RB: That’s the thing. Even if you don’t watch, they seem inescapable. Bachelorette, Dancing with the Stars, Jersey Shore—oh, my.

JE: Those seem really bad. But on the other hand, there is some of the best television out there: Mad Men, Lost. I haven’t watched those shows. I grew up watching The Brady Bunch. That was a silly show, but I absolutely adored it. This is what is so tricky about it, the reality stuff. I can’t even judge it. I can’t even judge whether it is good television or not.

RB: There is also a shift in the notion of celebrity—people famous for being famous.

JE: That phrase, “famous for being famous,” you know who coined it?

RB: I don’t.

JE: Daniel Boorstin in 1961, in The Image, a book that everyone in America should read every few years. That’s where he pinpointed that tendency, that possibility. This was really before even television had become a mass form. He predicted all of it.

RB: I haven’t read it—

JE: It should be required reading. It explains so many things about how our media has developed.

RB: How did you come across this book?

JE: I loved Boorstin, he’s written a lot of great books. I heard it referred to—Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle is better known, but it comes after The Image and The Image predicts what’s in there, also. It’s a really slim book—I highly recommend. It’s so smart. Anyway, he talked about the possibility of being famous for being famous—that was 1961.

RB: Now we are overwhelmed by those kinds of people.

JE: True, but how new is it, is the point I am trying to make. I wasn’t even born when he wrote that book.

RB: Perhaps it is the glut of everything.

JE: We see a lot more of this stupid stuff. That feels so true. It feels like we are inundated. It’s everywhere. At the same time, I am disgusted by my sense of myself as this middle-aged person complaining. For example, my older son has gotten really into pop music. He wants to listen to the hot radio stations all the time. My first reaction when he was doing this was, “Wow, pop music was a lot better when I was a kid.” But then I started listening and I realized it was no different, it was no better. It was just as silly. In fact, I have totally gotten into the groups he loves. I want to be connected to him. It doesn’t make any sense to stand there judging.

RB: I see pop music as always having a range from mediocre to brilliant. There was bubble-gum tripe like “Sugar Sugar” on the air with Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead.

JE: Exactly.

RB: Who are these women named the Kondrashians?

JE: I don’t know. I have no idea.

RB: They make it onto the covers of magazines I see at the supermarket checkout. At some point I lost interest in Michael Jackson, who I had known about since I purchased the Jackson 5’s first single on Steeltown Records (out of Gary, Ind.), but that did not stop my being aware of his various misadventures. It’s like the Big Book—even if you don’t care about it, you know about it.

JE: Right, right. But what’s different about that?

RB: It seems that the noise level is higher—

JE: I agree.

RB: And it imposes itself on you in way that requires effort to shut out.

JE: One of the challenges for us in the next 10 years is going to be how to figure how to regulate what we take in. I feel like I am doing that already. I don’t have a smartphone. I don’t want email when I am away from a computer. I need to concentrate and think. Everyone is going to have to ask those questions. One big question I have is whether the concentration problem exists among people who grew up with all these options to the degree that people like us feel it.

I just taught at N.Y.U. for a semester, and I had great students. They did not seem to be experiencing A.D.D. [laughs] that I could discern. I never saw someone texting in my class. I never heard a phone ring or any sort of signal of someone not having turned something off. They were seniors, planning to do interesting things the next year, like work on farms, go to foreign countries. They were applying for scholarships. They didn’t seem impaired, fragmented in any way. They seemed pretty much the way I remembered being a college student, and possibly more mature. I am wondering if growing up with all of this, they find it easier to simply turn away from it. It seems like people who didn’t grow up with it—people 10 years younger, who could still not have grown up with it—seem to be mesmerized by the possibility of connection in a way that makes it very difficult for them to turn away from it.

RB: When I pick up my son from middle school it seems like half, or at least a goodly number, have a phone in their palms which they are intently staring at. Not to mention you have multitudes walking our streets like that.

JE: Yeah, my son was texting me earlier using my husband’s cell phone. But, again, I feel like I want to be careful about saying that’s bad. But why is it bad? It’s bad if it keeps them from doing other things. I don’t know for sure that it does.

RB: There is an ongoing debate whether video games and other modern features of life are detrimental to intelligence. On the other hand, I don’t believe that playing Bach or Mozart for a baby makes them smarter. I don’t know that the games make one dumber, except if you are predisposed to play video games all day long. Then maybe there is already something wrong with you.

JE: My kids and I fight a lot about video games. We are very Spartan with them and strict. I don’t let them have very much access to video games. [laughs] But they used to have none, so from their point of view they should be pleased that we are moving in the right direction.

Interestingly, we used to argue—not so much me, I was always a big reader—television was a source of contention in our house. My brother wanted to watch more. My mother, less. At a certain point, she actually got rid of our television, to control his watching. He still watches a lot of television. My kids do not care about television. It’s as if it didn’t exist. I don’t know if this is true of most kids, or if in some way the emphasis is shifting towards the web, which obviously has its own dangers and problems if we are starting to leapfrog over television as a constant source of distraction. That would not be bad. But maybe it’s just my kids—they have had so little that they don’t care. Whereas, video games—if I let them play all day, they would.

RB: My son seems to have modulated his video-game habit. One thing he does that I am fascinated by—he will watch movies he likes multitudinous times.

JE: I know.

RB: Over and over again.

JE: That’s a possibility we didn’t have as kids, of course. Saw a movie once and that was it. You couldn’t even rent it. The will to repeat is really curious to me. What I find so amazing is, my mother will give the kids new movies for Christmas—they get to watch a movie one night a week. They would rather watch a few scenes from Kung Fu Panda, which they have watched at this point 10, 15 times, than see a fresh movie. I don’t get that. Maybe it’s with digitization, the possibility exists now in a way that it never did when I was little, so I am not in the habit. My feeling is, why would you ever pick the thing you have already seen rather than the new thing?

RB: In my lifetime, I can count on my hand how many movies I have seen more than once.

JE: Me too. I am not interested, generally.

RB: I am more likely to do that now—especially as years have passed since I have seen some films. What about rereading?

JE: Rereading can be amazing—especially after many years.

RB: What have you read that you saw in a new light?

JE: I had never gotten through Proust. I had read maybe the first two books, where he got out of—well, he never really gets out of the obsessive-love mode—but once Swann and Odette were resolved, my interest waned sharply. And that was at 21. Revisiting the novel at 40 or so, I was so mesmerized. How could I have been interested in reading about time as a 21-year-old? So that was a case of a book that I felt should have a warning on the cover: Don’t read until 40.

RB: Well, yeah, that’s a real issue in teaching literature.

JE: I feel like that about a lot of books from my 20s—I feel like I just wasn’t ready.

RB: Exactly—I didn’t like Henry James in high school. And now I find his writing brilliant.

JE: I know. I agree.

RB: Why wasn’t James amenable before? It goes back to what we talked about earlier—about being ready or sensitive to certain stages in life.

JE: On the other hand, I think Great Books should be taught and read—but there are certain subjects that are difficult to embrace at a young age, and certainly the impact of time is going to fall pretty flat. So this book, Goon Squad, is very much a response to the rereading of Proust, honestly. I thought, “How would you write about time now?” And technology plays a big part in In Search of Lost Time, which is really not much talked about. There is one part: He [Proust] looks up in the air and an airplane goes by and it is so shocking because it feels like such a 19th-century novel. It’s really not.

RB: When did Proust die, in the late 1920s?

JE: Yeah, I think so. The last three volumes were published posthumously. There was a great case, a funny case of rereading was Catch-22, which I remember as one of my all-time favorite books, having read it in my 20s. And I picked it up some 10 years later looking forward to savoring it again, and I didn’t like it nearly as much. And really, most strange of all, the particular thread of the book that I was most looking forward to actually wasn’t in it. I somehow conflated two books and I never figured out what the other one was.

RB: I never was impressed by it—I liked Franny and Zooey better.

JE: I’m talking about Catch-22.

RB: Catch-22? I loved Catch-22.

JE: I loved it too, but not the second time.

RB: Why did I think of Salinger’s book? I would reread One Hundred Years of Solitude every year for about three or four years.

JE: A great book. I should reread that.

RB: But by the fourth rereading it became too much—perhaps one time too many.

JE: I don’t know how many books can hold up to that.

RB: In that short a span—

JE: Exactly.

RB: I have to go to my son’s tryouts for his league’s Williamsport team.

JE: Is that a travel team?

RB: It’s the one that plays for the right to go to the Little League World Series.

JE: Wow.

RB: I hope we talk again.

JE: I hope you have stuff that is useful.

RB: I am sure I do.

JE: OK.

RB: Did I ask you your favorite color?

JE: Favorite color? Blue.

RB: [laughs]

biopic

Robert Birnbaum is editor-at-large at Identity Theory. All the sketchy details of his life will be (re)fabricated in his memoir-in-progress, Just Talking: How to Do Things With Words. His weblog can be found here. More by Robert Birnbaum