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Jennifer Egan, Great American Novelist

June 13, 2011

By Jennifer Egan:
Invisible Circus (1995)
Look at Me (2001)
The Keep (2006)
A Visit From the Goon Squad (2010) Pulitzer Prize

My tastes in music range from high to low. It doesn’t faze me when my iPod shuffles from Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis to the Carpenters. Both please me, though in different ways. It’s the same with art. I dig the sublime painters of the Renaissance and also the not so fine work of the kitschy Pre-Raphaelites, not to speak of R. Crumb.

It’s different for me and fiction. My tastes range mostly from upper lowbrow to middlebrow. I like thrillers and murder mysteries by the best practitioners of those genres: writers like Lee Child, John Sandford, Michael Connelly and Stephen King. They tell stories well, which is what I like. But sometimes I feel the need to go deeper.

So I turn again to Serious Fiction, and most times I get burned. Lost in convoluted sentences. Befuddled by meta-fictional conceits. Off-put by egotistical male writers who seem to consider writing an opportunity to make the rest of us feel stupid. Just plain depressed by female authors, who though they write more modestly and clearly than the men, make me wonder why the human race bothers to perpetuate itself.

A few years ago the yearning to go deeper arose in me. I turned to Jennifer Egan’s The Keep. Things did not start well between us. I’d been enticed into reading The Keep by the Times review, which mentioned the word Gothic. I’ve had a weakness for Gothic ever since at a tender age Bram Stoker had me leaning from a high castle window watching the count inch upside down down the vertical stones as he transformed into a giant bat. I ignored the part of the review that referred to The Keep as a meta-fictional labyrinth.
I was lost in that labyrinth from page one. Lost in Ms. Egan’s castle, or was it a prison? I was never sure when. I didn’t even get her conceit that her castle tale was actually being written by a murderer in a prison writing group, and intentionally written badly at that. There was also some tunnel that the two fiction-within-fiction cousins in the castle kept flashing back to.

I never figured out any of this. Except something kept me reading to the end. Which, oddly, was a kind of traditional bang-up dramatic finish. I suddenly began feeling something for the mysterious characters. I thought –Why couldn’t she write the rest of the book that way?

I forgot about her until I read her piece in the New York Times Magazine about Internet dating. Written totally straight forward. Interesting.
A few months ago I read a review of her latest, A Visit From the Goon Squad. It’s about my business, the music business. I was tempted, but held off – reviews called it highly experimental. I wasn’t in the mood for threading another labyrinth. Then Goon Squad won the Pulitzer prize. I said what the hell.

It is a colossally risky experiment. She invented a unique new form for it. I’m not going to disclose it here, as that would constitute a spoiler.
The word reviewers keep mentioning when talking about this book is virtuosic. It’s no hyperbole. Ms. Egan writes the way Yo Yo Ma pays the cello. She leans heavily into the long notes, pulling out heart-rending whole notes of yearning and pathos. She runs through the high fast virtuoso stuff with all the effortless delight of a five year old splashing into the sea for the first time.

Sometimes when I’m indulging in my diet of thrillers I have this moment, no doubt of hubris, in which I think – I could write that well. Maybe not next week, or next year, but if I keep writing.

I am never going to be able to write like Jennifer Egan, any more than I can compose like Beethoven.
Rather than intimidate me as a writer, that inspires me. She’s smarter than me, but doesn’t need to get a cheap ego buzz by proving it with her writing. She’s after bigger game. She’s reaching for greatness. It makes me want to reach too.

While Goon Squad operates on a number of levels – the unique formal structure, hot shot sentences, drop dead dialog, LOL humor and other stuff I promise not to give away –there’s one level I would gladly take by itself. The heart level. She paints her deeply flawed characters with such tenderness that you can’t help but love them, like a mother can’t help loving her pain-in-the-ass kid. Oh, and her story telling ability. Somehow even though her book is sliced and diced and all out of time and place, it still works as a story.

I left Goon Squad a devoted fan. I immediately ordered her first novel, Invisible Circus (1995). It was just as gripping. Jennifer Egan grew up in Frisco. She was only 5 when the Summer of Love happened in ’67, yet in Invisible Circus she succeeds in evoking the counter culture spirit of the 60s better than anyone who was actually old enough to live it. By the end of the book her characters felt like members members of my family.
Look at Me was published in October 2001. I found it a spooky read. It uncannily presages everything from Mohammed Atta and crew to reality television. Even more uncanny is just how well it is written.
Jennifer Egan’s deepest note, which plays over and over throughout her books like a 32-ft organ stop pedal point, is loss. The truth that everyone and everything we love we are bound to lose. Her character’s realization of that truth and what they do with it is the stuff of great literature.

Jennifer Egan has lit a fire under me as a writer. She also offers a cautionary note. Every composer since J. S. Bach has been tortured from time to time by his words, “Anyone who works as hard as I did can achieve the same results.” There’s a reason Jennifer Egan has only published 5 books in almost 20 years. Some of her chapters required sixty or seventy drafts. That gives me pause as I prepare to launch into a paltry forth draft of my novel.

I have another problem. Jennifer Egan has not only raised the bar for me as a writer, but as a reader. Now that I’ve tried to return to my comfy thrillers I feel something missing.

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From → Writing

One Comment
  1. If you haven’t, yet, go to Egan’s Web site (http://jenniferegan.com/books) and take in the slideshow chapter in its full-sound-and-color version. It loses an awful lot on the printed page, and I’ve heard that e-readers don’t really do it justice either.
    I didn’t like the book as much as you did–I found it easy not to love the characters, and I find the time-shifting distressing–but I agree that it’s writing to conjure with.

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