Jennifer Egan's "A Visit from the Goon Squad," a daring and disturbing journey through music, time and technology, won the fiction prize Thursday night from the National Book Critics Circle.
Egan's narrative roundelay of connected stories was among last year's most praised works and won out over four other finalists, including the most talked about novel of 2010, Jonathan Franzen's `'Freedom." Egan praised the critics as "guardian angels" who "actually described and remembered" her book and inspired the general public to read it. While "Goon Squad" looks closely into the high-tech future, she noted that the most futuristic section, structured like a PowerPoint presentation, caused fans to tell her that they couldn't read the book on a Kindle, so had to buy the hardcover.
"Score one for print publishing," she said.
Other winners were Sarah Bakewell's "How To Live" for biography; Isabel Wilkerson's "The Warmth of Other Suns" for general nonfiction; Darin Strauss' "Half a Life" for autobiography; C.D. Wright's "One with Others" for poetry; and Clare Cavanagh's "Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics" for criticism. There were no cash prizes.
Following a year when the praise for Franzen, subject of a Time magazine cover story titled "Great American Novelist," caused debate in the book community over whether male authors were regarded more seriously, five of the six winners in the competitive categories were women. Four of the five finalists for an honorary criticism prize were women, and the winner was Parul Sehgal of Publishers Weekly.
An honorary prize for lifetime achievement was given to the Dalkey Archive Press, which specializes in works in translation, experimental fiction and literary criticism.
Victory on Thursday seemed to leave the winners woozy. Egan said she wished she was still taking beta blockers, and Bakewell worried she wouldn't be able to remain standing. Sehgal, who knew in advance of her honor, said she was wearing a sari not out of ethnic pride, but "to conceal the knocking of my knees."
Both Cavanagh and Wilkerson noted how long their books took to write, with Wilkerson joking that if "The Warmth of Other Suns," a deeply researched study of 20th century migration in the United States, was a person "it'd be in high school and dating."
The book critics circle, a nonprofit organization, was founded in 1974.