Jennifer Egan’s inventive novel about the passage of time, "A Visit from the Goon Squad," won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction Monday, honored for its "big-hearted curiosity about cultural change at warp speed."
Egan, 48, has been highly praised for her searching and unconventional narratives about modern angst and identity. Her other novels include "The Invisible Circus," ”Look at Me" and "The Keep."
Critics were especially taken with "A Visit From the Goon Squad," set in the digital upending of the music industry. Earlier this year, she won the National Book Critics Circle prize for the book, which experiments with format, notably a long section structured like a PowerPoint presentation.
"The book is so much about how change is unexpected and always kind of shocking," she said by phone. Egan said she was inspired by Marcel Proust’s sprawling novel "Remembrance of Things Past," which explored the passage of time.
"His book of time is all about how the work of time is unpredictable and in some sense unfathomable," she said. "So there’s no question that winning a prize like this feel unpredictable and unfathomable."
The play "Clybourne Park" by Bruce Norris, which examines race relations and the effects of modern gentrification, won the drama prize. The work imagines what might have happened to the family that moved out of the house in the fictitious Chicago neighborhood of Clybourne Park, which is where Lorraine Hansberry’s Younger clan is headed by the end of her 1959 play "A Raisin in the Sun."
"I’m deeply honored and totally flabbergasted to receive this recognition," said Norris, who was staying on an island off the coast of Maine when he learned of the win. He thanked the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago for 10 years of support.
The Pulitzer for history was awarded to "The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery" by Eric Foner, a Columbia University professor who has won multiple honors for a career focused on the Lincoln era and Reconstruction. Foner, 68, called the latest prize a capstone for his career.
"The Pulitzer has a kind of broader importance and stature suggesting that your book is appreciated by a wider audience, a non-scholarly audience," Foner said in a telephone interview from London, where he is teaching this semester.
He said it can be intimidating approaching a book on Lincoln, who has been written about so much before. But he said many Lincoln books either try to put the Civil War president on a pedestal or tear him down, and he was trying to get a balanced view on a specific topic seen through the lens of that period in history.
Ron Chernow, a New York-based historian who has written about Alexander Hamilton and John D. Rockefeller in the past, won the Pulitzer for biography for "Washington: A Life," about the nation’s first president. It’s his first Pulitzer Prize.
"I am really quite flabbergasted and quite thrilled," Chernow said. The historian worked for six years on the project, reading some 35,000 to 40,000 pages of material on Washington and 125 books about people and events from Washington’s time. Contest judges called it "a sweeping, authoritative portrait of an iconic leader."
Kay Ryan’s "The Best of It: New and Selected Poems" won the poetry prize, a book called by the Pulitzer board "a treasure trove of an iconoclastic and joyful mind." Ryan was US Poet Laureate from 2008-2010.
"It comes with a really big car, doesn’t it? Don’t you get a Humvee? The poet’s car," she joked by phone while pacing in her kitchen in San Francisco. The book spans 45 years of her compressed, witty, often humorous poetry.
"Since my nature was not very compatible with the tastes of my time, I had to find ways to express what must be expressed in poetry, which is the activity of the mind and the heart," she said. "I suppose it sounds like a cliché, but poetry came and got me. I came to it very reluctantly, but it insisted."
The general nonfiction prize was given to "The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer" by Siddhartha Mukherjee, an oncologist and assistant professor of medicine at Columbia. It is his first book and he found out he’d won the Pulitzer while sitting alone in a bookstore in New York.
"It’s the most incredible experience of my lifetime," he said. "One of the reasons I wrote the book was to demystify cancer. One of the things that patients often feel is that the mystery itself becomes a kind of stigma. And I tried to get away from that without simplifying it."
The music prize went to Zhou Long for "Madame White Snake," which was hailed as "a deeply expressive opera that draws on a Chinese folk tale to blend the musical traditions of the East and the West." It made its debut in February 2010 in a performance by the Boston Opera. Zhou was chosen to write the music by Cerise Lim Jacobs, who wrote the opera’s libretto.
The Pulitzers in journalism, letters, drama and music are given out annually by Columbia University on the recommendation of a 19-person board and each award carries a $10,000 prize.
Finalists in the fiction category included The Privileges" by Jonathan Dee and "The Surrendered" by Chang-Rae Lee. Jonathan Franzen, whose novel "Freedom" was the most talked about literary novel of 2010, did not make the list.
Finalists for the drama prize included the Broadway-bound play "Detroit" by Lisa D’Amour and the sprawling "A Free Man of Color" by John Guare, which was produced at Lincoln Center. –AP Television Writer David Bauder and AP Music Writer Nekesa Mumby Moody contributed to this report.
Egan’s book cover.