Terrorism and Technology in Jennifer Egan’s Fiction

by Mairi Power


Jennifer Egan consistently pays attention to ideas of terrorism, war, and violence in her fiction. From her first novel, The Invisible Circus (1995), Egan writes about citizen bombing and guerrilla violence in a coming-of-age narrative fascinated with ideas of death and belonging. This interest in terrorism continues in Look at Me (2001), in the subplot of Lebanese terrorist ‘Z’ and a description of terrorist intent that eerily prophesies the events of 9/11, occurring just after the novel’s publication. Egan’s best known novel A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010) (hereafter referred to as Goon Squad) is haunted by the image of 9/11, which is present even in absence as the novel’s unique narrative structure moves between the before and after of the attacks. This interest is clearly still evident in the spy-thriller plot of Twitter fiction ‘Black Box’ (2012), and is even touched upon in Egan’s most recent novel Manhattan Beach (2017), a historical fiction which centres upon the first female diver at the Brooklyn Naval Yard in 1940’s New York and engages with its wartime setting and ideas of American military power.

This constant thread within Egan’s work is not just complemented by, but interwoven with, her focus on cultural digitisation. The examples of terrorist acts follow the increasingly technological interests of her fiction, from a physical bomb carried by Phoebe O’Connor in The Invisible Circus, whose last months are communicated through handwritten postcards read by her sister Faith, to the technologically-enhanced body of the agent in Black Box, who becomes a weapon herself and communicates to her base through wireless thought uploads. The move from analogue to digital is at the heart of Goon Squad and many critical responses to this novel focus on the music industry and the attached cultural nostalgia . Yet this move is also attached to the constant and increasing presence of terrorism across Egan’s work, reflecting a connection between the ideas of terrorism and cultural digitisation.

This article will draw together Egan’s depictions of terrorism and citizen violence within her various texts and will demonstrate the significance of this repeated interest across her body of work. It will point toward Egan’s conscious engagement with terrorism, as she outlines in interviews and articles, to indicate the centrality of this topic within her writings and to situate her work within a cultural awareness and attention to terrorism. Furthermore, the analysis will illuminate ideas of consumerism, digitisation and the American identity embedded within these themes, asking if Egan’s fiction suggests that both technology and terrorism are equally ubiquitous within her depictions of American citizenship.

Image by @donramxn at unsplash

The Constant Threat of Terrorism

I knew! I thought. I saw this coming! They should have listened to me! But these were lies: I watched the buildings fall with the same sense of awed incomprehension as everyone else. I didn’t see anything coming. I made it up. (Egan 2001a)

Here, Egan reflects upon the eerie similarities between her novel Look at Me and the attack on the Twin Towers on September 11th 2001. Egan published this piece ‘Imagining the Unimaginable’ as both an explanation and exploration of the parallels between her novel and 9/11, acknowledging that she did not predict the future and considering how she came to depict her character ‘Z’— short for Aziz — also known as Michael West. Calling her terrorist a ‘master of assimilation’, Z is a walking paradox, embodying the world he came to destroy. ‘Like Z, the Sept. 11 bombers lived in neighborhoods, went to restaurants, and put out their garbage at night’ (Egan 2001a); it is this similar assimilation that is so uncanny about Egan’s imagined terrorist— burning with hate for American culture while living in it, consuming it, and contributing to it. Intending to ‘watch […] the nightmare’ of American artifice end in ‘an explosion of violence’ (Egan 2001b: 311, 500-01), Z instead ends up completely assimilating into American life, becoming forever Michael West: a fully-fledged, burger-eating American man (Egan 2001b: 273, 371). This is where West’s resemblance to the 9/11 bombers diverges, as he comes to ‘doubt that a conspiracy underlies [America’s] domination’ (Egan 2001a).

Egan added an afterword to the novel in 2002, which acknowledges the impossibility of reading Z now outside the context of 9/11, noting that if the publication of Look at Me had fallen after September 9th 2001 then she would likely have had to reconceive the novel in light of what had happened. Because the novel was released prior to the events, Look at Me ‘remains an imaginative artifact of a more innocent time’, according to Egan (2001b: 517). Yet, a world where ‘everyone knew that there were people around who wanted to do this stuff’ (Schwartz 2017) is not wholly innocent but contains the seeds for potential disruption. Egan’s fictional scenario aligns with other novels which seem to capture a post-9/11 atmosphere despite being written beforehand–  such as Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections (2001), which was published just 10 days before 9/11, but captures ‘the angst and anxieties so common in wake of the attacks’ (Mander 2017). Egan’s Look at Me details the fragility of the structures that keep its characters secure, and how easily they can be torn down; featuring a model whose career is destroyed in a face-altering car crash, defining childhood friendships that simply grow apart over time, a young boy whose health and future are threatened by cancer. National security is in many ways just another one of these fragile structures which can come crashing down in an instant.

Egan draws attention to her consistent interest in terrorism, stating in an interview: ‘I’ve been interested in terrorism from the very beginning. My first novel is about that, too’ (Egan 2012). Indeed, these ideas of violence, belonging, and security begin in The Invisible Circus, where teenager Phoebe O’Connor retraces her sister Faith’s travels across Europe in an effort to find out the truth about her death. Phoebe discovers that Faith committed suicide after becoming involved with a guerrilla group called ‘The Red Army Faction’ and contributing to an attack which killed an innocent man. Set in 1978, ‘the political drama and familial tensions of the 1960s form a backdrop’ (Egan 1995: Cover) to the novel, depicting ‘drug culture, free love, [and] political radicalism’ as the invisible circus amongst which Phoebe’s ‘personal tragedy and a quest for closure’ takes place (Eve 2016: 137, 38). Egan again uses the American political landscape as the backdrop to her most recent novel, Manhattan Beach. Based in the industrial centre of U.S. World War II efforts, Manhattan Beach gives an insight to the material and human heart of American military might:

In the rich late-October sunlight, the Naval Yard arrayed itself before her with the precision of a diagram: ships of all sized berthed four deep on pronglike piers. In the dry docks, ships were help in place by hundreds of filament ropes, like Gulliver tied to the beach. […] “When I look out at all that,” said the secretary, who had come to stand beside Anna, “I think: How can we not win?” (Egan 2017: 63)

The ‘realistically detailed, poetically charged’ (Kirkus Reviews 2017) nature of Egan’s prose imbues descriptions of battleships with an emotional resonance and reflects confidence in the American war effort through the nation’s industrial power. Manhattan Beach is in many ways a very different novel to Egan’s past work, lacking the narrative playfulness she had become known for, and ostensibly disinterested in the consumerist landscape of contemporary America that her other novels focused upon. Yet, when tracking the idea of violence and terrorism in Egan’s work, this reveals a shared historical origin and political interest, and emphasises her constant attention to ideas of violence, American citizenship, and military power from her earliest to most recent novel.

Image by @alexkixa at unsplash

Terrorism and Technology                    

As well as political contexts, Egan’s depictions of terrorism are underlined by cultural changes, most specifically cultural digitisation and the impact of technological advances. Katherine D. Johnston points out that ‘September 11, 2001, is at the chronological center of Goon Squad, but then so is the launch of the iPod, which occurred on October 23, 2001’ (2017: 166); Johnston connects the coinciding events of the iPod launch and 9/11 in an analysis of surveillance culture and an increase in digital profiling and data mining that connects personal security to consumerism. However, I connect these events at the centre of Egan’s novel to a commentary on the unfolding of American history, observing that in her fiction technological advances and terrorist acts hold the same power in citizen memory.

Both events changed the average American’s daily life in innumerable ways; there is a particular impact upon routine, daily actions that are changed or informed by these events. The threat of terrorism and post-9/11 paranoia led to long queues and limits on liquids on airplanes, inserting additional routines into the typical travelling experience. These are soon not exceptional, but altered routines that become cemented into the ordinary. Conversely, the iPod changed mundane events such as the daily commute or a doctors’ waiting room into personally curated environments, individualising these otherwise generic settings. Most significantly, the iPod turns public experiences into private ones, taking the focus away from the faceless crowd and enabling the individual to turn their experience inwards through the ‘sonic barrier’ (Johnston 2017: 166) around them, forming what artist and theorist Brandon LaBelle calls ‘acoustic territories’ (2010). Conversely, the security measures imposed after 9/11 turned personal journeys— a family going on summer vacation, newlyweds jetting off on their honeymoon— outwards, into a reminder of the global threat of terrorism.

9/11 and the music industry are continually tied together in Goon Squad, culminating at the end of the novel when Scotty’s concert takes place at ‘The Footprint’- the future memorial for the World Trade Center. The empty space where the towers once stood is a haunting image that appears throughout the novel, simultaneously a memory of past American power and authority, and of trauma and violence. Placing the concert in this location thus situates the novel’s nostalgia and longing for lost youth and potential within the image of a shattered and vulnerable nation. Again the dichotomy of freedom and caution comes into play, as hundreds of concert-goers celebrate, sing, and embrace in this site representative of terror and mourning. Significantly, this choice to situate Scotty’s final concert at the site of the attacks demonstrates the power of music technologies to create a sense of inwardness within a public space. The experience is defined by the physical space, as the music is contained within the empty plot of land, and ‘dissapears between buildings’ (Egan 2010: 343), creating a sonic barrier that unites the crowd through the act of listening, and separates them from the wider world. Music thus alters the experience of the space from a site of terror and brokenness, ‘unleashing something strong, charismatic, and fierce’ (Egan 2010: 344) instead.

In her novels, Egan shows terrorism, like technology, as slowly creeping into the day-to-day life of the average American, becoming as ubiquitous in the headlines of the daily paper as the next iPhone launch. Chronologically placed in the middle of Egan’s work, both in setting and publication, Goon Squad shows the moment of this transition and absorption of terrorism into the fabric of American identity, occurring at this unique moment of both a major terrorist attack, and notable technological launch. Egan’s fiction also reveals the consistent progress of such digitisation over time and provides reflections upon the relationship between technology and terrorism in depictions of America’s past and future.  When considered concurrently, The Invisible Circus and ‘Black Box’ show completely different worlds, which are decades apart and have been transformed by both political and technological advances. The Invisible Circus focuses on materiality, depicting Phoebe physically retracing her sister’s journey across Europe, ‘going all the places Faith had gone—exactly, one by one’ (Egan 2001b: 14), by following her steps in the order described in the 18 handwritten postcards Faith sent home. In contrast, ‘Black Box’ is an entirely digital text—published online, released on Twitter one tweet at a time over the course of ten days. Furthermore, all communication within the text is made digital, as the text itself is a record of the agent’s thoughts, which are collected through an implanted chip in her brain and which act as ‘a record of [her] mission and lessons for those who follow’ (Egan 2012: 48): her thoughts are the black box of the text.

Beyond their shared focus upon methods of communication, both works of fiction depict female characters who take part in planned acts of violence. These two aspects are similarly transformed between the text, moving from material and analogue modes to wireless, digital ones in their methods of enacting violence and in communication style. That technology transforms the modes of both violence and communication in these texts emphasises its integration into every aspect of life. In ‘Black Box’, digitisation offers a response to terrorism and is the pathway for espionage and resistance; it depicts the agent hijacking a terrorist network and performing a ‘data surge’ (Egan 2012: 38) which downloads all the data from her target’s handset into networks within her upgraded body. This strongly contrasts Faith’s very material actions of planting a physical bomb, which she carried in a picnic basket and placed in a trash can (Egan 2001b: 320), unaware of the Janitor still in the building who was killed in the blast. This connection between the acts of violence and personal communication shows an interest in the human impact of digitisation, seeing lasting effects within an individual’s life and relationships. The multiple instances of digitisation within both communication and violence in the texts indicates the persistent and increasing influence of technology.

Turning back to the implications of the iPod launch at the centre of Goon Squad, it is then significant that ‘Black Box’ depicts the ability to record inaudible, internal thoughts— making the private public and removing these safe acoustic territories previously referred to. In Goon Squad technology and terrorism create conflicting effects, yet in ‘Black Box’ there is no turning inward, technology exists to confront terrorism and offers no refuge from the constant threat. Not even within the agent’s own mind can she find privacy, her thoughts and emotions become public goods through the implanted technologies. While Goon Squad depicts characters encountering the move from analogue to digital, Invisible Circus and ‘Black Box’ depict either end of the scale. Together, all three texts show an investigation into the changing and potential way that technology and terrorism interact, becoming increasingly intertwined and equally ubiquitous within Egan’s fictional works.


Mairi Power “Terrorism and Technology in Jennifer Egan’s Fiction,” Alluvium, Vol.9, No.2 (2021):n.pag.Web 19 April 2021. DOI: https://doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v9.2.04

About the Author

Mairi Power is a third year PhD researcher in English Literature at the University of Glasgow. Her research explores ideas of digitisation and the changing materiality of both humans and books within Jennifer Egan’s fiction. Mairi completed her MA(Hons) and MLitt degrees at the University of Glasgow, in their Comparative Literature and English Literature departments. She works as a GTA at the University of Glasgow and is also an assistant editor at U.S. Studies Online.

Mairi Power (m.power.1@research.gla.ac.uk)

University of Glasgow (Research Profile)

PhD Project: ‘Digital Identities: Technology and Selfhood in Jennifer Egan’s Fiction’

Works Cited

Egan, Jennifer. 1995. The Invisible Circus (Constable & Robinson Ltd: London).

———. 2001a. ‘Imagining the Unimaginable’, Slate. https://slate.com/culture/2001/09/imagining-the-unimaginable.html

———. 2001b. Look at Me (Nan A. Talese: New York).

———. 2010. A  Visit from the Goon Squad (Random House: USA).

———. 2012a. ‘Black Box’. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/06/04/black-box-2

———. 2012b. ‘This Week in Fiction: Jennifer Egan’ Interview by Deborah Treisman, The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/this-week-in-fiction-jennifer-egan

———. 2017. Manhattan Beach (Corsair: London).

Eve, Martin Paul. 2016. ‘Approach and Avoid: Jennifer Egan’s Pre-Goon Squad Academics.’ in, Literature Against Criticism: University English and Contemporary Fiction in Conflict (Open Book Publishers).

Franzen, Jonathan. 2001. The Corrections (Fourth Estate: London)

Johnston, Katherine D. 2017. ‘Metadata, Metafiction, and the Stakes of Surveillance in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad‘, American Literature, 89: 30.

‘Manhattan Beach’. 1 July 2017. Kirkus Reviews. https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/jennifer-egan/manhattan-beach/

LaBelle, Brandon. 2010. Acoustic Territories: Sound Culture in Everyday Life (Continuum: New York).

Levy, Steven. 2006. The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture, and Coolness (Simon and Schuster: New York).

Mander, Gabrielle. 31 May 2017. ‘The Corrections, Novel by Franzen’, Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/The-Corrections

Mishra, Pankaj. 2011. ‘Modernity’s Undoing’, London Review of Books: 4.

Precup, Amelia. 2015. ‘The Posthuman Body in Jennifer Egan’s “Black Box”’, American, British and Canadian Studies: 16.

Schwartz, Alexandra. 2017. “Jennifer Egan’s Travels Through Time”, The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/10/16/jennifer-egans-travels-through-time

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