Has the Goon Squad Come For PowerPoint?

When Helen Fielding used a diary to tell the story of Bridget Jones, this stylistic choice seemed logical: the journal format allowed the reader to see the seemingly small details of Bridget’s everyday life. But what if Bridget had written her diary in a very unusual format? In her recent Pulitzer Prize winning novel A Visit from the Goon Squad, author Jennifer Egan dared to explore this question by writing an entire chapter of her novel in the form of PowerPoint slides. As one of her characters – a twelve-year old American girl named Alison – struggles to understand her complex emotions, she chooses to use charts and diagrams rather than traditional prose.

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In an interview with the Office Show, Egan explained that she was curious about PowerPoint as it seemed that “no one used the word memo or paper or presentation any more – it was always PowerPoint.”

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She discovered in writing the chapter that PowerPoint allowed her to tell different stories than conventional fiction, to detail Alison’s segue of thoughts or to reveal the structure of small moments such as the attempts of Alison’s brother – a child with Asperger’s – to communicate his love to their father. The format also allowed her to control the pace of the story by inserting pauses in a way that can’t be properly communicated with words. A novelist can indicate via text that a pause occurred, but the reader is still actively engaged in reading those words. Instead, by visualizing a pause between the character’s thoughts and actions, PowerPoint allows the novelist to in effect stop time in the reader’s mind.

Egan believes that the PowerPoint chapter is essential to the central story of her book because it pulls the different themes together into a cohesive whole. But how well can this technique be replicated? What lessons should we draw from Egan’s use of PowerPoint?

Egan chose PowerPoint to reveal the structure of small moments rather than emphasizing the connective tissue between moments, the focus of most conventional fiction. But it’s telling that this technique was used to convey the story of only one chapter and one set of characters. While she may have discarded the connections between moments in this single chapter, its placement within the overall narrative weaves it within the fabric of the broader story arc.

PowerPoint cannot be a substitute for good story-telling – this is why Egan’s chapter works, and why PowerPoint is not actually a replacement for memos or papers or presentations. Each of those mediums relies on the connective tissue between ideas. For papers and memos, writing serves this purpose: the author must spell out their ideas and the transitions between them, as Egan does when she writes conventional fiction. For presentations, the speaker plays this role: the slides may provide visual cues and represent distinct ideas, but the presenter is what ties the slides together.

The true achievement of Egan’s PowerPoint chapter is demonstrating how the use of media-in-media can enhance the overall quality of a story when used well. The placement of the chapter within a more conventional novel brought to life otherwise unobtainable details. This should serve as a powerful reminder to presenters who believe that their slides are the heart of their presentation. PowerPoint is most successful when used as media-in-media: not as a stand-alone presentation, but as a tool to aid in the story that the presenter is telling.

Read more about A Visit from the Goon Squad at Jennifer Egan’s homepage.

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