The Tom Wolfe Lecture at Washington & Lee: Jennifer Egan

goodsquadTom Wolfe, a distinguished alumnus of Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, returns each year to host the Tom Wolfe Lecture, a series endowed by his classmates from the class of 1951 in his honor. In my experience–I’ve been to it 3 times now–it is a wonderful, intimate, enlightening gathering attended by some W&L alums (and others) who are very interesting in their own right.

The first time I went, maybe 5 years ago, I heard Geraldine Brooks (People of the Book: A Novel) and her husband Tony Horwitz (Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War) speak. They were both great, and I was especially interested in Brooks’s fiction, which I’ve read closely since then. Last year I heard the phenomenal Colum McCann (Let the Great World Spin: A Novel) speak about his amazing novel, one of the greatest books of this century so far, in my opinion. Joining these writers on the program were W&L faculty members who did a wonderful job of analyzing the guest authors’s works. And, of course, Tom Wolfe was present to introduce the speakers, which added a lot to the proceedings, which seems to generally focus on the intersection between journalism and fiction.

So I was looking forward to this year’s program and the opportunity to hear Jennifer Egan (A Visit from the Goon Squad). And it was, again, a fantastic event.

I drove down to Lexington on Friday afternoon. It was a cool but sunny day and the drive was beautiful. (I took the scenic route instead of the Interstate.) I registered for the seminar, bought a copy of Tom Wolfe’s new book, Back to Blood: A Novel, and got him to sign it. Shortly after that, the program began in Lee Chapel, with Wolfe introducing Egan, who spoke for about 50 minutes on her own experience as both a journalist and a fiction writer, and how the two roles inform each other. (I may reflect more on her remarks in a separate post.) Following her talk, she signed books–I had two copies of Goon Squad for her to sign, one hardcover and one paper–and then our seminar registrants and faculty–just 40 people–had a reception.

I just happened to be standing by the door when Egan arrived at the reception, so I engaged her in conversation. Someone brought her a glass of wine (she seemed quite grateful) and we kept talking. I didn’t mean to monopolize her, but no one interrupted us so I had her all to myself for nearly 15 minutes. We had a good talk about writing and publishing and I offered to give her a copy of my latest book, which I did the next day. Finally someone got up the nerve to join our conversation, and then several people did, so I moved on, having had more than my share of her time. The reception was followed by a very nice dinner for our group.

Then the seminar continued this morning with two lectures by Washington & Lee faculty. The first was a talk by Chris Gavaler (School for Tricksters: A Novel in Stories) called “Goon Squad as Pulp Fiction,” which looked at the book in the larger context of popular culture, including comic books, rock music, contemporary fiction, and film. It was a very helpful analysis that altered my view of the book somewhat. Then Jasmin Darznik (The Good Daughter: A Memoir of My Mother’s Hidden Life) presented “The Art of Discontinuity: Time and Memory in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad” which looked at the book both as a post-modernist novel and as an heir to the work of Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf. Because Goon Squad is very much a story about time and memory, this analysis made a great deal of sense, even though I hadn’t thought of it in quite that way before. And then Egan joined Gavaler and Darznik on the stage for a panel discussion, beginning with Egan’s “response” to the two academic analyses, followed by questions from the seminar participants. It was a terrific morning program, and I’m now a big Egan fan.

Then, with lunch, the event concluded. At lunch, during the first night’s dinner, and during the breaks, I had delightful conversations with other participants.

I can’t wait to find out who W&L will bring in next year.

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