The Pulitzer Prize for Hypertext

Each year, the Pulitzer Prize committee supposedly bestows an award for distinguished fiction that deals with American life. But to my mind, this year’s committee bestowed an award for distinguished hypertext that demonstrates why we must read fiction in the Internet age.

Before I say why, let’s be clear: A Visit from the Goon Squad, which won the 2011 prize, isn’t hard to read. Author Jennifer Egan uses straightforward sentences. She portrays interesting characters that ring true, from aspiring teenage rock stars in San Francisco to loners fishing under Williamsburg Bridge. She sticks to familiar settings, like California and New York. And she talks a lot about rock and roll, which is fun.

Still, the reader has work to do. Goon Squad does not progress linearly through time. Each chapter takes place in a different year or decade, and Egan doesn’t tell you which one. She drops hints instead. Chapter 1: Sasha “hated the neighborhood at night without the World Trade Center.” Chapter 13: “the new buildings spiraled gorgeously against the sky, so much nicer than the old ones (which Alex had only seen in pictures)”. What year are we in? The reader must interpret these statements in order to build a chronology that connects one chapter to the next.

Nor does Good Squad present a unified voice. Third-person narration takes us through much of the book. But several estranged high school friends and a failed journalist each take a turn with first-person narration. A twelve-year old narrates her story with PowerPoint slides and demonstrates more facility with this medium than any businessperson I’ve ever seen. You (and I mean you) also take a turn in a chapter narrated in the second-person; your name is Rob and you die in a drowning accident, but wise readers knew your fate even before you did, based on clues presented earlier in the book. Who’s talking? The reader must interpret these voices in order to envision the characters, their passions, and their regrets. (Jonathan Bastian of NPR makes a similar point in his review).

So this book does not merely permit you to make connections, it demands that you do so. Unlike a mystery novel, however, it does not dictate how or when. As a result, A Visit from the Goon Squad is structurally incapable of being the same book twice. When I read it the first time, I connected the years and decades. I even got out the calculator and created a chronology of the thirteen chapters (this is so geeky, but according to my calculations, the book jumps from 2007, to 2006, 1979, 1973, 2005, 1997, 2002, 2007, 1998, 1992, 1989, and finally to the 2020’s in California and the 2020’s in New York City). When I read the book the second time, I connected the characters to one another; as in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, many characters in Goon Squad have a twin or a mirrored identity, but you’ve got to look for them. When I read it the third time, I tossed all of this aside and found smaller themes. Plumbers, of all people, keep re-appearing in the book. So do figures from Greek mythology. So do large bodies of water, sometimes clean and sometimes polluted.

So why must we read fiction? Some people argue that good fiction serves an antidote to the Internet age. Good fiction, they might say, stops our relentless jumping from one site to another. It requires us to slow down and patiently follow a narrative from start to finish. But if you ask me, A Visit from the Goon Squad changes all that. Good fiction, we can now say, not only allows us but encourages us to jump from one site to another. Good fiction reveals how richly active our minds can be when we are forced to make connections on our own, rather than having them made for us. Good fiction embraces PowerPoint. Good fiction, despite all the good evidence to the contrary, looks a lot like the Internet. Congratulations to Jennifer Egan on winning the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Hypertext.

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