Look at Me by Jennifer Egan


Now I got to the point that I’ve read every one of Jennifer Egan’s book (I deliberately took my time because she just doesn’t have that many), and this is the first and only one I don’t absolutely adore and admire.

Of course, it’s still great, at least it passes my very scientific test, namely, that a book is good when it’s powerful enough to force its way into my dreams. And it’s also good because it has everything I love in Egan’s work (for details about what I love in them, check my earlier, enthusiastic posts; now, for once, I don’t want to repeat myself).

But I was not swooning with delight reading Look at Me, and there were things that bothered me.

For example, it bothered me that there’s just too many characters in this novel, and that it’s about way too many themes. In this respect, it foreshadows A Visit from the Goon Squad, with its multitude of characters, points of view, styles, and topics ranging over decades and continents, but in Goon Squad, Egan handles and juggles everything with a masterly hand, and her writing doesn’t get overwhelming. Here, though, I was sometimes asking: Just why is there so much stuff here? Do you really have to try telling everything in one novel? Can all this fit into a single book?

What’s all this? Roughly (and without attempting to be comprehensive): public and private identities, the connections between the two, and whether they are mutually exclusive; the connections between reality and non-reality (virtual reality, projection, reproduction – you name it); the cultural monopoly of the US that burdens every other culture in the world; the peculiar feeling of being lost that permeates our teenage years and that’s still full of hope and that secret thought that there will still be a whole life for everything; the eternal longing for being someplace else, sometime else. And these topics are all exciting or heartbreaking, it’s just that – all this, here, feels too much for me.

Another thing: to me, it felt that Jennifer Egan was sometimes repeating herself here. True, I read her books in random order, not chronologically, so perhaps it confuses me that I remember them both forward and backward. Still – I’ve read in at least two of her novels so far how she describes that weirdly specific feeling, using basically the same words, when a character (usually very young and naïve, and wishing for perfection) who’s deeply immersed in a situation and in an emotion, suddenly finds herself in the future in her thoughts, and realizes the temporariness of her current situation – and suddenly understands how the thing that hurts now won’t hurt anymore 20 years later, and how what’s real now will only be a memory then.

And yes, it’s fantastic how Egan can capture the essence of this feeling (of any feeling for that matter), and it made me shiver just as it made me shiver when I read about this feeling in her other novels, but still: it bothered me that I’ve already seen this – the same thing described in the same way. I want to see things I haven’t seen before. Or: I want to see things I know in ways I haven’t before. Here, it didn’t happen for me.

(And now I’m just looking forward to Manhattan Beach, Egan’s new novel out in October.)

The Invisible Circus by Jennifer Egan


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.

Emerald City by Jennifer Egan

emeraldBefore Jennifer Egan started writing amazing, mind-blowing and hauntingly beautiful postmodern (or post-postmodern) novels, she also wrote books such as this short story collection, which isn’t postmodern at all – but it’s just as beautiful and heartbreaking as, for example, A Visit from the Goon Squad. Egan published 5 books so far; Emerald City was the third I read, and I start to think that she simply cannot write badly.

Emerald City was Jennifer Egan’s first published book, and it contains 11 short stories. They are all about great emotional upheavals or traumas, about a disappointment, or a major change (or the possibility of a major change), and through the course of events, the protagonists all realize a couple of major truths about their lives, and thanks to these revelations, they will probably be able to live differently after the story ends – or maybe they won’t. The stories are about a unique moment in the protagonists’ life when time stops for a minute, and the characters are free to decide whether they will travel the untrodden path from now on, or simply stay in the lukewarm comfort (or discomfort) of their current life. To be a little more specific, I give you a couple of examples.

One of the stories, Sacred Heart is about a teenage girl who falls madly in love with another girl in her class – a girl with dangerous, self-destructive habits and a dysfunctional family. The protagonist admires her classmate, turns her into a romantic idol in her imagination, and for months, she’s greatly unsettled and unhappy because she feels that the average, safe, boring reality she inhabits is nothing compared to the – apparently – wild, intense, real reality of her classmate – until one day she finds out that the tragic-romantic heroine of her imagination is just another average teenager. Sure, this is a huge disappointment – but at the same time this is a break-away from a destructive, dangerous spell, and after the spell is broken, the protagonist will be able to carry on with her life again.

In another story, Puerto Vallarta we witness the disintegration of a seemingly happy family. (A disintegration which, from another perspective, is not a disintegration at all, but rather the meticulous deconstruction of family ties which were based on lies, and then a new start on different grounds.) Naturally, the disintegration/deconstruction doesn’t come out of the blue, and before it comes, we learn about the (power) relations between the father, the mother and their teenage daughter, and we also get to know the secrets and emotions which tie or separate them. Then finally, during a family holiday in Puerto Vallarta there comes a moment when one of them has to choose between leaking a secret and by this, changing everything, or keeping silent and by this, choosing to go on with a make-believe life forever.

In most of the stories, the protagonists decide to act, to change everything – even though this is often a kind of „passive” change: finally giving up the fight, and accepting/acknowledging the fact that, for instance, they would never really fit into the group they would passionately like to belong to; or that their greatest dream will probably never come true, so it’s time to look for another, more plausible dream. These realizations, of course, make the protagonists sad because they must relinquish something they’ve been clinging to desperately – but after accepting the truth, it finally becomes possible to live an honest life, without self-delusion.

Besides the all-permeating melancholy of change (or the lack of change), Jennifer Egan’s outstanding ability to describe locale is the most remarkable feature which connects these stories. The stories are set in a variety of cities, countries and continents (Mexico, Spain, Bora Bora, Africa, New York City), and the characters usually come to these places from somewhere else – to live, to work, or to rest. Naturally, they often feel like a stranger in these strange lands – just the way they feel within the boundaries of their lives. And even though I’ve never been to any of these places, Jennifer Egan describes them so sensuously that I feel as if I intimately knew all the (inner and outer) spaces her characters inhabit.

So yes – these are enchanting, delicate, beautiful and elegantly written stories. They are full of emotions, but they never get sentimental. And they trust your imagination and empathy. I loved reading them.

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Jennifer Egan’s novel was a dream of a book for me: it’s full of those wonderful, clever and witty postmodern games I adore and which I hardly ever find in a book in such a succinct and mature form, but besides all the postmodern games and the tricky literary details, A Visit from the Goon Squad is far from being a cool, rather soulless book in which form is more important than content and which you can only admire but cannot love.

Goon Squad is a novel made up of 13 interconnected short stories which can be read separately as well. It seems to me that it’s often claimed about novels made up of short stories that the stories are perfect in themselves but that you can grasp the whole picture and appreciate the individual stories’ worth more if you read them all – however, I have never tested the truthfulness of this claim so far. But now I had the chance to test it. One chapter of Goon Squad, „Out of Body” originally appeared as a short story in the 2011 edition of the Best American Short Stories series, and it was in that collection that I first came across this story. When I read „Out of Body” for the first time, I had no idea that it was part of a novel, but I was deeply fascinated and overwhelmed by the story so I immediately checked upon the author because I wanted to know more about the person who can write such unbelievably good stories. And this is how I found out about this novel, too.

I mentioned all these just to assure you: with Goon Squad, the claim cited above regarding novels-made-up-of-short-stories is definitely true. At least one chapter can be read as a perfectly free-standing work of art (and I guess you could read several chapters on their own, too – though probably not all of them), but if you read the book as a regular novel, you can find a mass of extra meanings and by reading chapters 100 or 200 pages apart, you can learn a lot of extra information about the characters far from one another both in time and space. And this makes the novel hugely enjoyable and also gives you the wonderful feeling of being an insider in the characters’ lives. (Again, let me mention „Out of Body”. When I first read that story I couldn’t really decide about the interpretation of the final scene. However, in Goon Squad, while reading a chapter set in a totally different time and space, among partly different characters, I learned about the fate of the protagonist of „Out of Body”.)

Still concerning the form and the way information is handled in the novel: it’s not my intention to list all the postmodern and/or unique features of the book, I just would like to mention a couple of them. One of these is the fact that each chapter is focused on a different character and each chapter is set at some point in the time between the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 2020s, and the chapters usually don’t come in a chronological order. There are a couple of „real” protagonists in the novel who appear in almost all the chapters and whom we can see at several different turning points in their lives; but there are others who are first only minor characters in the chapter of one of the main characters, and then they have a separate chapter all to themselves. And the author sometimes asserts her omnipotence ironically by inserting small commentaries on certain characters and letting the reader know what their life would/had become in the following twenty or thirty years.

As regards the narrative techniques and other peculiar features of the novel: there are chapters told in the first person singular and chapters told in the third person singular; there’s a chapter which is like a PowerPoint presentation where you can read the „story” on little arrows, diagrams and callouts; and there’s a chapter („Out of Body”) written in the second person singular.

(Sounds complicated? Only in my review – reading the book, all this is perfectly easy to follow. However, I can’t help speaking about this, even though I can’t express myself with ease. Once I read in a review of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves that one of the pleasures in writing about that book lies in the fact that you simple desire to describe it. And it’s the same with Goon Squad. It’s immensely good simply to talk about it, and it doesn’t matter at all that I know I won’t be able to describe it adequately and I won’t be able to tell you why it’s so good that it’s exactly the way it is.)

Naturally, the question might arise: do all these less-than-ordinary formal details and narrative techniques mean anything in the book? Of course I don’t mind if strange visual, typographical or narrative techniques have no real meaning in a novel and they are just there because the author likes to play games and experiment with these things. However, if all these unique solutions actually mean something, then my enthusiasm and admiration know no limits. And to my great delight, in Goon Squad all these really mean something.

Let’s take a look at „Out of Body” again. The protagonist and narrator of this story is a mentally and emotionally shattered young man who attempted suicide a couple of months prior to the story’s present. Since his suicide attempt he often feels as if he were watching himself from the outside, but in the meantime he is also living his life „from the inside”. It would be possible to talk about the mental processes going on in this man in other ways as well, however, since the narrator is in and out at the same time, telling the story in the second person singular is an excellent and particularly effective choice because this way the narrator can address himself and see himself and make himself seen from the outside. What’s more, because of the peculiar mental state of the narrator, this narrative voice doesn’t sound forced – it’s absolutely natural. And the shift in the point of view in the final scene of the short story is simply breathtaking, so even if I had entertained any doubts about the meaningfulness of the second person singular narration (which I had not), the last sentence would have cleared all of them.

I mentioned at the beginning of my post that in this novel, form doesn’t become overwhelming and it doesn’t obscure meaning. However, so far I’ve only talked about the formal characteristics of the novel, so it’s time that I said something about the content as well. As you might guess from what I’ve written so far, the novel doesn’t have a regular, linear storyline, and we don’t get to know „everything” about the characters – not even about the main ones – and we learn a lot of important details only through a circuitous route, and we’re not actually present at a lot of important events. However, if I want to say something about the story, it would be this.

One of the main characters of the novel is Bennie Salazar, the owner of a record company. Bennie grew up in the 1970s, and just like several other teenagers he also tried his hands in music. He was a musician in a garage band whose members engaged in various complicated relationships with the girls surrounding them. Then some time passed, Bennie launched his own record company, discovered and helped several bands to success, but finally he got fed up with the fact that at the beginning of the 21st century all music is digital and all sound is synthetic and he got a craving for „real” sounds and real things. The other main character is Sasha who worked as Bennie’s assistant and right-hand person for more than ten years and helped make 21st century music become what it became – and in the meantime she lived a rather complicated life.

The novel arches a period of about 40 years and during this period we cannot only witness how the angry music of the end of the 1970s becomes the sterile, digital, too-perfect music of the 2000s, but also witness how people change: how the not too talented but versatile and clever Bennie becomes the owner of a record company; how Scotty, a man once considered to be an extremely talented musician becomes a half-homeless, half-alcoholic middle-age man who eats fish fished out from the filthy East River – until with a stroke of good luck he becomes famous; how the kleptomaniac Sasha whose wild years as a youth turned out to be a little too wild tries to conform to the norms of society; and in general: how almost everyone gives up their youthful dreams and desires for things which are hard to grasp and are not necessarily precious – or the other way around: how people become trapped in the role they found for themselves in their twenties, a role which doesn’t fit them anymore, a role they would happily shed – if only they were still capable of it.

Goon Squad is about topics like these. About youthful enthusiasm turning into bitterness; about good and bad decisions; about chance encounters which are not really chance encounters after all; about change and development which is very often a change for the worse and deterioration.

And what’s this novel like? It’s immensely heartbreaking but not pessimistic, beautiful and clever – a text very much alive. It’s one of the best novels I read in 2011.