THE MANY FORMS OF "GREAT ROCK AND ROLL PAUSES": TEACHING VISUAL LITERACY AND FORM // Drew Amidei

01 Jun 2019 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

I want to talk about teaching one of my favorite chapters of a novel: “Great Rock and Roll Pauses” from Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. One challenge students face in an introductory literature course is learning how to talk about form. Teaching “Great Rock and Roll Pauses” (GRRP) helps students with that challenge.

The formal features of the novel are often invisible to students when they enter their first literature course. On the first day, ‘novel’ might as well be a fancier word for ‘book.’ The invisibility of the novel’s form is probably a result of the novel’s peculiar ability to incorporate other forms and genres within itself. For Bakhtin, this ability defines the novel. As my colleague Steven Watts says, “a novel can contain a poem; a poem cannot contain a novel.” The absorptive ability of the novel is also why I like teaching GRRP, because it incorporates a writing genre students know, but believe to be unliterary: the slide presentation.

Encountering a 76-slide PowerPoint in the middle of a novel can be disorienting. Each time I have taught GRRP, whether I teach it as a short story or with the whole novel, my students reported that it is one of the most challenging pieces they read – at least it was before we analyzed it. They are generally not used to employing visual literacy when reading a novel, but the form of GRRP demands they read word and image in conjunction. When my class reads GRRP, I always ask them, “what do the slides in this chapter allow for Egan to do?” I have found that this particular framing of form, as structural features that allow (or disallow) the content to do something, is a useful first step in getting students to consider form. 

I am not the only person that sees pedagogical potential in GRRP’s form. Kathleen A. Reilly convincingly argues that the chapter’s discussion of disability hinges on its structure. Lincoln, who is neurodivergent and loves pauses in rock songs, serves as GRRP's heart even though Allison is its narrator For Reilly, GRRP’s structure “positions readers to experience this text through an unfamiliar mode, requiring the use of different tools to make meaning.” Reilly also points out that the structure allows Allison to capture rather than merely describe silence. My favorite slide is the one in which Allison captures the pauses by writing “They sound like this:” followed by a white bounded box. In my master’s thesis on novels with embedded photographs, I placed Goon Squad alongside Jesse Ball’s Silence Once Begun as novels whose formal features allow them to incorporate silence even though silence lies beyond the usual limits of a text-based art form.

But the real reason I find teaching GRRP so useful is because the chapter exists in several versions that each alter the reading experience. In her article, Reilly is writing about the online slide show, complete in the garish colors that a twelve year old might employ. Most students, however, read the chapter in a paperback novel which, because the economics of mass-printing paperbacks, renders the slides in grayscale. The difference in color affects how students might understand Allison; the grayscale, appearing more professional, obscures Allison’s tweeness making her seem older than she is. The version I preferred to teach was the slide presentation hosted on Egan’s website, complete not only with color but with auto-playing snippets of the pauses. The inclusion of the actual pauses signals that Allison believes them to be significant enough that they need to be included in her slide-journal, which deepens the sibling relationship. That version is now, unfortunately, beyond my reach. There is also a youtube video posted by Knopf Doubleday that preserves the color and sound, but removes the reader’s ability to click through or jump to a slide by entering its number. Each of these four versions presents the contents of GRRP as fully as their forms allow, but each produces a different reading experience that can affect our understanding of Allison. That is why if I only get one class period to try to teach form, I teach “Great Rock and Roll Pauses.


Amidei, Drew. Seeing Constructed Realities: Images and Law in the Contemporary American Novel. 2017. University of Missouri-Columbia, Master’s Thesis.

Bakhtin, Mikhail M., “Epic and Novel,” The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Edited by Michael Holquist, translated by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. University of Texas Press, 1981. Pp 3-40.

Egan, Jennifer. A Visit from the Goon Squad. Anchor Books, 2010.

Reilly, Kathleen A. “Reading the Silence in Jennifer Egan’s ‘Great Rock and Roll Pauses.’” English Journal, vol. 106, no. 6, July 2017, pp. 79–80. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mzh&AN=2017872702&site=eds-live&scope=site.


Drew Amidei is a Ph.D. student at the University of Missouri-Columbia where he received his Master's Degree. Drew studies contemporary literature and the Capitalocene. He has previously presented at Midwestern Modern Language Association and American Culture Association/Popular Culture Association.






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