I have no idea how Jennifer Egan does this. I can get it if someone has the wonderfully eerie ability to instinctively understand human emotions and tangled relations, and all the ways things can be awesome and things can suck – but this ability combined with the talent to be able to write it all down is something rare and precious. Jennifer Egan is in possession of both the ability to perceive and the ability to put her perceptions to paper – and I’m thoroughly amazed by her.
I have no idea, either, what Egan’s teenage years felt like (she was born in 1962), but I have a strong suspicion that the 70s were quite a memorable period for her. The reason for this suspicion is that – just like in her Pulitzer-winning novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad – the main (almost living) characters of this novel are the 70s and time in general – time wasted, time lost.
The novel explores several other themes but I don’t attempt to write about all of them – I’ll mostly focus on time here. But first – a few words about the story.
The heroine of the novel is 18-year old Phoebe, standing on the brink of adulthood. But Phoebe doesn’t care either about adulthood, or about enjoying her teenage years – all she’s interested in is her late sister, Faith, who died 8 years earlier, who was loved and admired by everyone who knew her, and whose death Phoebe cannot get over. While the rest of her family, and the old friends and old loves of Faith are all more or less living their own lives already, Phoebe still sleeps in her sister’s room, idolizes every small memento left behind by Faith, and devotes her life to understanding (and following in the footsteps of) her sister. The „following” bit is mostly theoretical, though, given the fact that Faith was the quintessential hippy of the end of the 60s, while Phoebe (as she’s well aware) is just an average, screwed-up teenager.
At the beginning of the story, Phoebe decides that the only possible thing for her to do is to travel to Europe and visit the places Faith visited 8 years earlier – from London through Amsterdam through Paris, all the way to a small Italian village, where Faith’s journey ended.
Phoebe is hoping to find peace, hoping to find certainty on her journey, but – of course – her attempt to find Faith is also an attempt to find herself – and Phoebe’s journey towards self-knowledge is a beautiful, unsettling, and very exciting coming-of-age story.
But like I say, this is a multi-layered novel – not a simple coming-of-age story. And it feels to me that the main theme of the novel is not even growing up, or finding ourselves – but the way we exist in time, and the way how most of the time we are not even at that time where we are in reality.
One way the perpetual sense of being at the wrong time is manifested in the novel is the constant nostalgia for events, for selves we had never experienced, had never been. In this case this is the nostalgia for the end of the 1960s: hippies, world peace, and world-shattering changes. Some characters were there then; some were there but were too young to grasp the meaning of what’s happening to them. And in the end it doesn’t really matter because in 1978, the present day of the novel, all of them feel as if they hadn’t been there – as if they had only been looking at those days from the outside, even when they were living right through them.
And the way the novel starts is just perfect: Phoebe is heading to a 60s-revival festival, but it turns out that she’s a day late for the event. And it’s not only her – it turns out that half the posters had the wrong date printed so hardly anyone turned up at the festival. This is typical of the novel: the feeling of being late, and not just the feeling – really being late, which is all the more terrible, all the more frustrating because the characters only realize too late that they are late for something, that they missed something for good.
The other side of being at the wrong time is depicted in the way the characters relate to the present and the future, the way they step from one into the other – for example, they tend to imagine how they will look back at the present moment from the future, when the present will already be past – therefore it will most probably be much more charming than the future present.
It’s often mentioned about Phoebe, for instance, that she doesn’t expect anything from the future and doesn’t even imagine anything about the future – and there’s nothing cynical in this, Phoebe is hardly a cynical teenager – and she lives her present in the past. All this changes – for a while – during her European trip: during that trip, Phoebe really exists when she is. Being in the present never lasts long, though, as made obvious by the following quote (which is one of the most beautiful moments in the novel):
“Phoebe felt herself hurtling forward in time until she was looking back from an imaginary future at these days with Wolf, at this very moment. My time with Wolf, she would think, those first days with Wolf, and pictured even now how the memory would break across her, a longing catch to the throat as she recalled their compulsion and wild tenderness, her worries about fate and whether their affair would last. This vision tumbled over Phoebe with the force of revelation: she would stand somewhere and look back, she would live a life. Until this moment she had never truly believed it.”
And most probably, it will be like this. There will be a life – the conclusion of the novel leaves no doubt about that, and it even gives some hope that after her pilgrimage, Phoebe will finally become Phoebe, and won’t be living as/in the shadow of Faith any longer. As for existing in the present time, though – that’s still doubtful.