Archive for the ‘Jennifer Egan’ Category

Gotham Diary:
Do Not Disturb!
14 November 2011

Monday, November 14th, 2011

A few hours’ of imprudent hankie-sharing with runny-nosed Will, on Friday, obliged me to swallow a dose of NyQuil last night, enabling me to regret my lack of backbone this morning. Worse, aside from a few hours spent on housework, on Saturday, I did absolutely nothing this weekend but read Alan Hollinghurst’s very beautiful book, The Stranger’s Child; so, not only am I spineless but I find myself swaddled in a dream of that green and sceptered isle.  


I’ve read two frowning reviews of The Stranger’s Child, by James Wood and Daniel Mendelsohn. Both reviewers, it seems to me, want Alan Hollinghurst to do something that he’s clearly, on the evidence of the novel that he has actually written, not interested in doing. To be sure, they come to the book from opposite perspectives. To Wood, who is English but who works in the United States, the novel flirts with sentimental preciosity; it is too prettily English. To Mendelsohn, an American, the novel lacks a sympathetic core; what he doesn’t get is precisely what Wood’s afraid of: that The Stranger’s Child is about England. But the two critics unite is in a demand that the novel take a moral position on something, anything. Wood, complaining about what, to him, are stylistic curlicues:

These flecks of aspic are scarcely heinous, but cumulatively they suggest an overindulgent hospitality toward the material. Hollinghurst seems too ready to perpetuate a fond English elegy that he should, instead, be scrutinizing.

Among Mendelssohn’s numerous expressions of discontent, here’s the baldest:

You have to wonder what is being critiqued in the new book.

Do you? I thought that scrutiny and critique were critics’ tools, not novelists’. The critical habit of finding social criticism in novels is as easy to explain as the connection between the generosity of the Marshall Plan and trumped-up fears of communism in postwar America: it justifies the reading of fiction/the spending of millions. That’s to say that it appeases an anxiety about the “uselessness” of fiction — and of art generally.

But what Hollinghurst wants to do, it seems to me, is to tell a story, a particular kind of story, possibly a new kind of story — the only other example of such a story that I can think of is Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad. It is the kind of story in which a very great deal of material is omitted. One of the characters in The Stranger’s Child, Jennifer Ralph, has an interesting parentage; her father was the child of Daphne Sawle Valance Ralph (the central character if not — and she definitely is not — the novel’s protagonist). But who was his father? That’s a question that the book chews over for moments at a time. But the man himself, this child of dubious provenance, this father of a woman whom we meet as a girl and then as an Oxford don — this man never has a name. All we know about him is that he was “in rubber” in colonial Malaysia. I don’t regard Jenny’s father’s namelessness as a negligence. I think that Hollinghurst wants us to note it, and to take it as a reminder that every story involves the back ends of countless other stories. His story has lots of such holes.

The point of a novel such as The Stranger’s Child is to work a novel out of a story full of holes; to put it more “artistically,” we might speak of a narrative that weaves content with lacuna. I don’t want to carry this idea too far; the point is never that what’s left out is as or more important than what’s put in. In Egan’s book as well as Hollinghurst’s, though, the reader is unavoidably aware of making the calculations that impose coherence on the narrative. Egan’s calculations are a little more demanding than Hollinghurst’s, possibly because her book is frankly prospective, whereas The Stranger’s Child is “all about” the past. But the work is always pleasant and intriguing, never onerous. There is nothing new, of course, about readers’ completing stories in their minds; our minds flesh out the verbal content of every sentence that we hear. This new kind of novel that Egan and Hollinghurst have explored simply makes us aware of something that we do all the time. The very old-fashioned term for it is “leaving something to the imagination.” It’s what popular bad writers make their fortunes by avoiding.


It seems impossible — I must be mistaken — but I clearly remember a day, in the summer of 1977, when my father and I were driven from London to Stratford-on-Avon. This was a sentimental journey for my father; he had visited what he called “Shakespeare Country” several times with my mother, who had just died, and even though I never heard either of my parents so much as speak the name of any of Shakespeare’s works, they liked the countryside. (A similar fondness for “Sound of Music Country” remained stoutly disconnected from any interest in Mozart.) I know that you can make a day trip out of Stratford, but can you also see Blenheim, walk around Oxford, and have a leisurely lunch at a country hotel not too far from Birmingham? Yes, if you were traveling with my father, you could.

That drive is my total experience of the English countryside. It differs at no point from anything that I’ve seen in the movies. (Toss-up question: have more films been shot in Manhattan or the Home Counties?) And when I read about the English countryside, even though I can’t tell a spinney from a combe, I feel that I’m on very familiar ground. (The ground that I actually grew up on, which is the same here in Manhattan, especially at the north end of the island, as it is in Westchester County, is rather more exotic, a great deal rockier, beneath all the roads and buildings, and wilder.) This is not just because I know what England looks like, however; it’s because I’ve spent so much of my life in the heads of characters who’ve spent so much of their lives walking around in it. From Forster and Woolf to Ishiguro and McEwan, I’ve walked hundreds of English miles.

The Stranger’s Child is certainly a novel of the countryside. London is a grimmish offtstage anti-presence until very near the end of the book, by which time the city has swallowed up the village in which the story begins. London may be about pomp, but it’s the country that speaks of English power.

The High Ground was an immense lawn beyond the formal gardens, from which, though the climb to it seemed slight, you got “a remarkable view of nothing,” as Dudley put it: the house itself, of course, and the slowly dropping expense of farmland towards the villages of Bampton and Brize Norton. It was an easy uncalculating view, with no undue excitement, small woods of beech and poplar greening up across the pasture-land. Somewhere a few miles off flowed the Thames, already wideish and winding, though from here you would never have guessed it. Today the High Ground was being mown, the first time of the year, the donkey in its queer rubber overshoes pulling the clattering mower, steered from behind by one of the men [it’s 1926], who took off his cap to them as he approached. Really you didn’t mow at weekends, but Dudley had ordered it, doubtless so as to annoy his guests. George and Madeleine were strolling on the far side, avoiding the mowing, heads down in talk, perhaps enjoying themselves intheir own way.

This passage serves very well as a skeleton-key to Hollinghurst’s cabinet of wonders: England is very beautiful precisely because of ownership arrangements that, from time to time (if not more often) throw up monsters like Dudley. And on flows the Thames, unseen.  

Gotham Diary:
14 October 2011

Friday, October 14th, 2011

We apologize for the outages these days; we’re assured that there won’t be any more. Not for a while, anyway.

Not that I have much to report this morning — or, rather, much time for reporting. I’ll have to fill in this entry later this afternoon. We were out late last night, Kathleen and I, and the evening was so exhilarating — Gil Shaham playing the Brahms Violin Concerto with Orpheus was an experience without parallel in the concert hall, although I was often reminded of extremely tight jazz sessions — that I had no desire to be a good boy and go to bed when I got home. So I sat up reading a preposterous but amusing article about The Quilted Giraffe, a restaurant that Kathleen and I never tried (thank heaven, I can say now) in the current issue of Town & Country. Even that was exhilarating. 


But before I get to last night, I want to say a few more words about Jennifer Egan’s novels, and the powerful sense that I have of understanding them, at long last. I should begin by saying that I knew along that the problem was with me. Egan’s books are subtle and sophisticated, but they are not hermetic puzzles that yield secret meanings only to those who know how to hold them upside down in just the right light and squint. Her fiction is as straightforward as it appears to be. The problem at my end was that I was picking up a strong signal that I didn’t know how to interpret. I only knew that I was receiving it. I was sure of that; I was sure that I wasn’t reading in a significance that wasn’t really there. The signifier was in plain sight. But then so was everything else in Egan’s rich fictions, with their occluded plots, layered timelines, salient recursions, and fertile lacunae. There was so much to see. And I understood most of it. But I was persistently aware of not understanding something that I was seeing.

And then, as I wrote yesterday, it came to me. Literally: the sentence drifted through my mind and into the paragraph of a letter. Only when I’d written it down did I grasp its significance — which turned out to be the significance that I’d been hunting ever since I was first beguiled by A Visit From the Goon Squad. Rather, I grasped that I had a handle on it. The handle was the term “American exceptionalism.” I’ve moved beyond that; I don’t believe that Egan’s characters could not behave as they do if they were not American. (We live in globalizing times.) If I’ve held on to “exceptionalism,” it’s because the term took me to the image that seemed to explain everything. Jennifer Egan presents her characters as they see themselves in the mirror after they’ve done their primping and are ready to go out the door — at their most self-confident, that is — but she is able, as if writing in some sort of stereophonic parallel text, to accompany this image with a morally grounded critique (a quiet demolition, really) of the rationalizations and petty dishonesties that underlie that self-confidence. Egan’s characters are glamorous because they’re all con men, and they’re sympathetic because they’re all their own greatest marks. Here, at the very beginning of Goon Squad, is one of the novel’s major characters, Sasha, roiling in the backwash of her bad little habit of stealing other people’s unconsidered trifles (sometimes not so trifling), which her analyst (whom she calls Coz) has just asked her about.

Sasha turned her face into the blue couch because her cheeks were heating up and she hated that. She didn’t want to explain to Coz the mix of feelings she’d had, standing there with Alex: the pride she took in these objects, a tenderneess that was only heightened by the shame of their acquisition. She’d risked everything, and here was the result: the raw, warped core of her life. Watching Alex move his eyes over the pile of objects stirred something in Sasha. She put her arms around him from behind, and he turned, surprised, but willing.

One of the elements of that “something” that stirred in Sasha is a feeling that everything is okay, or will be okay if she can change the subject, which she does by distracting Alex, the young man whom she has brought home from a bar, from the virtual shrine to kleptomania that has accreted in a corner of her Lower East Side flat — a place about which she has paralytically mixed emotions.

In fact the whole apartment, which six years ago had seemed like a way station to some better place, had ended up solidifying around Sasha, gathering mass and weight, until she felt both mired in it and lucky to have it — as if she not only couldn’t move on but didn’t want to.

Never once in this entire chapter (or elsewhere in the book that I can think of) are we invited to feel sorry for Sasha. She’s a big girl, and a clever girl; she can take care of herself. She can afford to “risk everything” with a little light-handed thievery. She is an exceptional girl: the ordinary rules manifestly don’t apply to her. Do they? That’s really whatA Visit From the Goon Squad is about. I’ve said that Egan weighs her characters with a morally-grounded critique, but she is no moralist. Some of her characters get away with murder. Others don’t.


About last night: Orpheus began its — what, 39th? season — at Carnegie Hall with what looked to be a very pleasant program; it turned out to be rather more. It opened with Mendelssohn’s Fair Melusine Overture, a trim tone-poem inspired by a legend that Goethe retold in Wilhelm Meister. I hadn’t heard it in years; I couldn’t remember a thing about it. But it turned out that every note was familiar, because works of its charm (considerable) and length (ten minutes or so) were invaluable to me in my radio days, when I had to schedule forty-eight minutes of varied music for every hour, with at least three breaks for commercials. What I really remembered, though, was the little old Jewish emigrant who did something mysterious at the Wall Street bank where I worked for a few summers in my teens. When she learned that I was developing an interest in Wagner, she heaped as much scorn and contumely on the wizard of Bayreuth as she could muster, and certainly one of her most considerable charges, quite aside from Wagner’s concededly posthumous popularity with certain Nazis, was his musical plagiarism, particularly his theft from a Jewish composer — Mendelssohn. I didn’t know what she had in mind at the time, but it came back and hit me when I heard Fair Melusine the first time. By then, I was an aficionado fo the Ring cycle, and it was obvious that Wagner had stolen the whole rolling Rhine motif from Mendelssohn’s overture. It still seemed obvious last night, although I know that musical creative lightning strikes twice a lot more often than you might think, meaning that it strikes two minds at the same time. From what I know of Wagner, it wouldn’t be surprising to hear him defend his theft as an improvement begging to be made upon the original.

I thought about that, and how different things were then; the War hadn’t been over for twenty years. I thought about how dingy Carnegie Hall was in those days; it was slated for demolition as soon as Lincoln Center, rising amidst slum clearance to the northwest, was completed. Looking at it today, with its gilt and its plush as opulent as can be, I can hardly believe that it was such a dreary old barn when I was a kid. Some things really do get better!

I can’t be sure whether it was in 1961 or 1962 that I was taken to Carnegie Hall for the first time, but it was about fifty years ago. Carnegie Hall was only seventy years old when I made my debut as a member of the audience. Seventy years seemed a much bigger number then than it does now, and fifty years — well, fifty years is about how long I’ve been doing everything that interests me.

The composer of the next piece on the program was sitting a few rows ahead of us, and on the other side of the aisle. Cynthia Wong was born in New York in 1982; she’s not even thirty. Her composition, Memoriam, commissioned by Orpheus, was given its first New York performance. The dedication, printed in the program booklet, began with an address to her father, dead of cancer, and the music that followed was at least as effective a tone poem (in this case about hospital corridors and chemotherapy) as Mendelssohn’s. I didn’t understand Memoriam in any formal way, but I was happy to listen to it, and my only objection, one of aesthetic economy, was that the score didn’t make enough use of the vibraphone or the tubular bells to warrant, so to speak, the rental. It was grand to see Laura Frautschi in the concertmaster’s seat; I missed her last season.

Then, Haydn’s 73rd Symphony, La Chasse. I wondered if I knew it. I know all of Haydn’s Paris and London symphonies, of course, and a sprinkling of earlier ones, but not in any systematic way; I seem to be saving the methodical comprehension of Haydn’s symphonic development for a rainy day. I misread the program note, which said something about La Fedeltà premiata, one of Haydn’s operas. I don’t know any of Haydn’s operas; I’ve never really given them a chance. I have enough trouble with Mozart’s early operas, and Mozart really knew what he was doing (eventually). But I know La Fedeltà premiata for precisely the same reason that I know Fair Melusine. An overture by Haydn! Aside from his symphonies, quartets, and sonatas, what Haydn wrote was for the most part much longer than twenty or twenty-five minutes a pop. As I say, I misread the program. It said something about how Haydn had later recycled the opera overture into the 73rd symphony. I assumed that this would be the first movement, which, as it played — very agreeably, of course — I didn’t recognize. It was only when the bumptious finale began that I realized my mistake. That was the overture. How like Haydn.

After the interval, Gil Shaham played the Brahms violin concerto. That’s why we went to the concert. The weather was damp and dreary, and Kathleen was exhausted; she could hardly keep her eyes open on the train. (How do you get to Carnegie Hall from Yorkville? Unless you’re an idiot, you take the 6 and then the N or the R.) But we’d been wholly wowed by Mr Shaham’s performance, a few seasons back, of Beethoven’s violin concerto. That was when Orpheus was beginning to play big-boy stuff that was considered beyond the reach of a conductorless “chamber orchestra.” Brahms’s concerto is about a million times more challenging than Beethoven’s in this regard, if you ask me, because Brahms is always playing rhythms off against one another, and who’s going to keep track of what’s going on if not an overall music director?

The Brahms violin concerto is one of the most beautiful in the world, perhaps the most beautiful, and I am always happy to sit back and enjoy it. But sitting back was not permitted last night. Here’s what happens when there’s no conductor to direct the traffic: the orchestra and the soloist morph into a gigantic jazz band and the familiar score becomes a series of astonishing riffs. Never has my little brain followed music in a concert hall with so little internal distraction. It’s very hard to write about how great performances “make it new,” but a homely image that comes to mind is that of an imaginary machine that rolls along ripping up old roadway at one end while laying down new pavement at the other. You know the music; but you don’t know this music. The musicians are tearing it apart in the very act of putting it together.

I’ve heard lovelier violin playing than Gil Shaham produced last night, and there were more than a few squeaks in his upper register, at least in the early part of the performance. But the beauty of the concerto, and the beauty of violin playing — these were exploded and reconstituted along with Brahms’s score. Certainly some of the most beautiful moments were the quietest ones. How softly can you play an instrument in Carnegie Hall, filled with a thousand odd people, and still be heard? Very softly. It was a curious miracle, how silent the room was, but for the gossamer silver threads of tone that spun from Mr Shaham’s violin. They were the only sounds in a zone of absolute quiet. (Even the subway was stilled.) Aside from that, all I can say was that soloist and orchestra exercised a collegiality that I’m quite sure would have amazed the composer. Certainly they threw the schoolbook notion of the concerto as a form of conflict right out the window. It clearly meant something that Mr Shaham was wearing what all the Orpheus men wore: a dark suit, a dark shirt, and a silver tie. He was One Of Them. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.

And the fans went wild: it was one of those ballpark evenings at Orpheus. Orpheus audiences can outshout and outwhistle the opera queens any old time.

Gotham Diary:
13 October 2011

Thursday, October 13th, 2011

Last night, just before dinner, I figured out something that has been puzzling me for about a year and a half, and it came to me, as these things do, when I wasn’t looking for an answer. I figured out what is special about Jennifer Egan’s fiction.

What makes it special to me, that is. What explains the dark glamour of her leading characters. It’s this: she instills into each of them a venial version of American exceptionalism. Growing up American, they’re generally unaware of their strange self-entitlement, but they act on it constantly. They use it to justify doing bad things. Not very bad things, and (usually) not seriously illegal things. But murky things that nobody with a rigorous sense of right and wrong would ever get mixed up in. At the moment, I’m thinking of Danny, in The Keep. Danny King was “such a good boy” when he was growing up, which meant, it turned out that, he was too good for NYU, which he dropped out of (to his father’s disgust) on the strength of his faith in his specialness, aspect of which Egan grimly compiles in a glib catalogue of trivial masteries. (Note the “alto” — Danny’s word for feeling on top of the world.)

He used to think they’d be close again, but he’d stopped. Because of all the things Danny had achieved in his life — the alto, the connections, the access to power, the knowing how to get a cab in a rainstorm, and the mechanics of bribing  maître d’s, and where to find good shoes in the outer boroughs (it was the equivalent of a PhD, all the stuff Danny knew, on top of which he was known, widely known, so that when he walked on lower Broadway it wasn’t abnormal for him to recognize every single face — that’s what happened when you’d been a front man for clubs and restaurants as long as Danny had. At times it tired him out, having to nod or say hey all those times, and he’d decide he was only going to greet the people he actually knew, which was practically no one, but Danny couldn’t do that, shun people, the sight of a face turning his way was something he couldn’t refuse) — all that, so much! everything, it seemed to Danny on a good day, everything in the world you could ever want or need to know, added up to nothing — literally nothing — in his pop’s eyes. It didn’t exist. A blank page.

To be widely known, even when you know practically no one — it’s the American dream. Willy Loman dreamed it. We’re exceptional until — oops — we run into an exception.

Now I’m keen to re-read A Visit From the Goon Squad, which I haven’t revisited in its entirety since it came out last year. I feel that I have the key. For example: the electric guitar head on the dust jacket. I was mystified by the role of rock ‘n’ roll in Good Squad. Was Egan interested in music criticism? It seemed hardly likely to me that so disciplined and formally acute a writer would deign to pad her fiction with obiter dicta about pop music. Now, of course, I see — whether Egan intended this or not — that there could be no better emblem of American exceptionalism than rock music. Only Americans would have the cheek to believe that kids without much formal training entertain a crowd or record radio hits. We’re different, is what rock music had to tell the world from its earliest postwar beginnings. We don’t have to be polished. We can be rough and crude and noisy and even obnoxious, and you’ll still love us. I could be describing what most of Egan’s characters see when they look in the mirror. It has nothing to do with personal uniqueness. American exceptionalism is an environmental gift that’s bestowed upon anyone who grows up in this country — more particularly and most generously, upon anyone who grew up as a member of the Baby Boom generation. The important thing is to stop believing in it.

America ought to be exceptional in just the opposite way: as the land of people who can’t believe how lucky they’ve been, and who hope to live up to their good fortune. Instead of which — Jennifer Egan tells us what it’s like.


It’s possible, although not likely, I don’t think, that I read about Jennifer Egan and American exceptionalism somewhere. If I did, it made no immediate impression; it didn’t resonate with what I was feeling in her novels. If I did read it, I had to rediscover it, and I rediscovered it last night in the course of answering a letter. A friend had just finished reading A Visit From the Goon Squad for the first time, and she was glad to be done with it. “For one thing,” she wrote, “the David Foster Wallace chapter nearly sent me into conniptions…” She did not specify a chapter; being in the middle of other things, and a bit lazy, I wrote back to ask her which chapter she had in mind. The ninth, of course, the ironically annotated celebrity item by Jules Jones. I replied quickly to say that of course my friend was right; the chapter has the look of a Wallace parody. Then I continued, writing off the top of my head,

If I didn’t see it, it’s because the observation doesn’t get me very far in my inquiry, still pressing, into what it is about Jennifer Egan’s fiction generally (I’ve read all of it now, several times) that distinguishes it from everybody else’s. Perhaps I’m barking up the wrong tree, but I see a terrible moral tangle in her work that other writers steer clear of, or are agnostic about. Her people do bad, but not very bad, and rarely illegal, things. They screw up, and they screw up pretty much with their eyes open. It suddenly hits me now, for the first time, that they’re afflicted by a venial version of American exceptionalism: it won’t matter if I do x, because I’m basically a special person.

Then I sat back in my chair and re-read what I’d just written. The “Eureka!” bubbled up quickly. After a year and a half of reading and thinking and taking notes and squinting — and then, more recently, not giving Egan much of a thought at all — I understood what she was saying to me. She may not be saying it to anyone else, but I don’t think that I’m ever not going to hear her saying it — singing it — to me.

Reading Jennifer Egan (et alia):
Intense and Enigmatic Joy
Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Wednesday, June 8th, 2011

Among the writers presentging their foundation  mythologies — how they became readers and writers — in the Summer Fiction issue of The New Yorker is Jennifer Egan. Egan offers up her brief career in “Archeology“; having realized that she was too squeamish for the pulse and flow of medicine, she was attracted by the dead humans of paleontology. Visions of foreign travel and exotic climes were splintered by the blinding heat of a field in Illinois. Her experience with a square meter of Native American remains started badly but improved, and when it improved to the point where Egan had learned what she needed to learn from it, she went back to San Francisco and saved up for a sojourn of non-invasive contact with living Europeans. “But my sojourn in Kampsville has stayed with me—the sensation I had of scraping away the layers between myself and a lost world, in search of its occupants.”

And I thought, is that it? I am still trying to put my hands on the qualities that make Egan’s fiction special. The best that I can do is to say that she captures in her prose — which is to say that she does more than merely describe — the temptations of the glamorously dodgy. Her characters are almost always doing something wrong, but it is rarely something very wrong: a matter of misdemeanors, not felonies. In A Visit from the Good Squad, Sasha not only steals things — little things, like cheap binoculars and pens and a child’s scarf — but she sets them out, as trophies, in her flat. Somehow the display seems as wrong as the kleptomania, and possibly worse. But it’s easy to miss what Egan’s characters avoid (for the simple reason that Egan is a mistress at leading the dance of fiction): the vicious and the disgusting. Their sins are sins of weakness, of giving in to the glittering trinket. And yet Egan invests these sins with all the desperate loss of Eve’s biting into the Apple, and then offering it to Adam. The first sin didn’t much look like one.

If it takes me a while to figure Egan out, I won’t mind. I’ve known her work for little more than a year (in which I’ve read everything, some of it twice), and that’s not very long for taking the measure of subtlety. It occurs to me that Egan belongs to the small company of great women writers because, unlike notable male novelists, she doesn’t trumpet her emotions or swish her toe in the nostalgia of lost youth; while, unlike the run of women writers, she takes an ironic (displaced) view not only of her characters but of the very art of fiction as well. (I maintain that the PowerPoint chapter of Goon Squad is a triumph of imaginative literature, and perhaps the degree zero of graphic fiction.) And while Egan assuredly wants to be read, I doubt that she wants to be grasped. (Men always do, and complain that they never are — why is that?) Much as I’d like to roll out a critical reading of Jennifer Egan that sparkles with insight, I’m going to distinguish between wanting to do it and wanting to have done it. I’m not going to let the latter impulse (which is of course the stronger) hurry me.

What a prolix old fool I am: this was meant to be an apology for not having finished John Armstrong’s In Search of Civilization, a book that makes a number of highly sympathetic arguments about the linkage between virtue and prosperity (linkages, I say, not causalities). I completely share his horror of populism and its works; I also share his interest in popularization, which is the art of taking the trouble to strip away the non-essential accretions of sophistication from things that are beautiful and true. At one point, in connection with Abbé Suger of all people, Armstrong insists on the importance of charm. Can you think of a quality more deplored by modernism? Today’s cognitive revolution is demonstrating the many ways in which warmth and sympathy are vital to human fulfillment, and how deeply even the chilliest of us crave them, but our artists are taking their time about getting the message.

Realizing that I wasn’t going to be able to say anything solid about Armstrong’s book, I broke off at a keenly interesting place and went downstairs to collect the mail. Along the way, I read another foundation story, Salvatore Scibona’s “Where I learned to read.” The question has two answers. The first really answers a slightly different question: Where I learned that I wanted to learn how to read. That took place in an old shack outside his working-class home. The answer to the title question is “St John’s College at Taos.” Regular readers will know that nothing makes me happier than hearing about young people buckling down with the great books and loving it. “All things considered, every year since has been a more intense and enigmatic joy.” Exactly. 

Reading Jennifer Egan:
Rapturous Images
14 March 2011

Monday, March 14th, 2011

Since my last entry on A Visit From the Goon Squad, we’ve had the good news that the book has won the National Book Critics Circle award for its author. News of the award usually mention that the novel is “set in” or “about” the “music business,” a connection also announced by the drawing of a guitar’s headstock on the (American edition’s) dust jacket. “Music business” is, obviously, an unstable term; serious participation in any of the activities associated with one of those nouns generally precludes awareness of the other. But the sale of beauty, the commercialization of aesthetic experience, is a problem throughout Egan’s work. (In “Puerto Vallarta,” a story from Emerald City, the cheating father sells franchises to a lobster restaurant that uses “real butter.”) If this is a kind of prostitution, Egan’s businessmen are pimps who long for more than a percentage of the transaction. And if music — popular music — is the business, then what’s longed for includes the impossibility of youth regained. 

“The Gold Cure,” Goon Squad‘s second chapter, belongs to Bennie Salazar, who, like Sasha from the first chapter, is one of the novel’s recurring characters. Now in his mid-forties, Bennie is afflicted by shames — powerfully unpleasant memories for which he may or may not have been actually responsible but which leave him feeling humiliated — as well as by a flagging libido. Bennie is a successful music producer; although he sold his label, Sow’s Ear, to a  multinational oil company five years ago, he still runs the operation. But he can’t shake the conviction that the music that he is promoting is “bloodless.” The old songs that Bennie prefers to listen to are the ones that, in contrast, inspire “rapturous images of sixteen-year-old-ness” and remind him of his high-school band — a scene that we will visit, through other eyes, in the third chapter.  The chapter title refers to Bennie’s costly faith in the efficacy of gold flakes, which he drops into his coffee; so far, however, the gold cure has failed to ignite his engines. Bennie is, in short, one of Egan’s trademark desperate characters. He may not want for funds or health or occupation, but without youth these boons mean little. Meaning is leaking out of Bennie’s life with a fairly audible hiss. 

In “Found Objects,” Sasha and her date, Alex, had drinks at the Lassimo Hotel, which Sasha chose “out of habit; it was near Sow’s Ear Recods, where she’d worked for twelve years as Bennie Salazar’s assistant.” In “The Gold Cure,” Sasha is still Bennie’s assistant; what’s more, Egan throws us an anchor by which to date the chapter: five years have passed since 9/11. So we have moved at least a year or two before the “present” of the novel’s opening, but not too much more than that, because Sasha has been working for Bennie for a long time — so long that he no longer sees any part of her but her breasts, which serve as a “litmus test” of his randiness. Sasha’s ability to bear up under this wolfishness without embarrassing her boss is only the lesser half of her expertise; she also understands the running of his business better than he does. (As Bennie puts it, Sasha is always finding the things that he has misplaced.) At the end of the story, when Bennie collapses into a lustless longing for Sasha, she demurs: “We need each other.” Sasha and Bennie can be together only on the business side of the music business. 

There is no sign in this sad scene of the personal damage that (as we saw in the previous chapter) goaded/will goad Sasha to steal things; we not only see Sasha from the outside but from Bennie’s sporadic and largely inattentive point of view, which allows her to become little more than what Bennie wants her to be: someone with whom he can feel the “safety and closeness” that he knew with his ex-wife, Stephanie, “before he’d let her down so many times she couldn’t stop being mad.” One might evince a cliché about the unknowableness of other people from the contrasting perspectives of these opening chapters, but the richness of the portraits (together with the deft shift in time) serves an opposite effect. Even more than in “Found Objects,” “The Gold Bug” richly studs familiar types and situations with peculiar details. It is set on a day in which Bennie decides to do something unusual, as if on a whim but in fact to escape the oppression of his painful memories, which, the opening sentence tells us, “began early that day.” The unusual thing will be to pay a visit to  the sisters who front for a failing band that he signed a few years ago. He’s got to drive up to Westchester anyway, to spend the afternoon with his nine year-old son, Christopher.

This earlier appointment would be dreary and depressing for both father and son, we’re assured, if it were not for Bennie’s carelessness, which leads him to take out his little box of gold flakes in front of Christopher, who of course instantly wants to taste one. We are thus distracted from the low-grade ordeal of a divorced father trying to pass a few hours in the company of a boy with whom he no longer lives — but we never forget that we’re being distracted. Nothing happens to suggest that the gold flakes have brought Christopher closer to his father. He’s just taking an ordinary boy’s delight in doing something different and probably improper. 

A further distraction supervenes in the basement of the sisters’ Mount Vernon house, where the simple live-ness of the music awakens Bennie’s “rapturous images,” he he joins in the jam session by whacking a cowbell. We have seen this sort of thing before, too, but Egan doesn’t let it go on for more than a moment. “And from this zenith of lusty, devouring joy, he recalled opening an e-mail he’d been inadvertently cpied ion between two colleagues and finding himself referred to as a ‘hairball’.” There is simply no escaping these humiliations! For someone who dwells on lost youth, no present happiness is ever strong enough to defeat the insinuation of an old shame. Bennie’s attempt to escape into the heedless orgies of the past is of course doomed, but Egan gives it a particularity that makes us dream for a moment that it might succeed. We feel with and for Bennie even though we know that he’s just another jerk who liked life better with “the half hard-on that had been his constant companion since the age of  thirteen.” 

The curious thing, the special thing about Jennifer Egan is that her interest in shame — a force of which she has an engineer’s understanding — is uncoupled to any sense of alienation. Nothing is more private, more personally difference-making than shame, but if Egan gives us characters who feel this wretchedness acutely, the very fact that they feel it creates a common ground. Not for them, perhaps, but for us. Sahsa and Bennie are like two beautifully sketched trees that, we’re told, stand not far apart in a forest somewhere. What we do, effortlessly, is to sketch the ground between them. The sketch may lack detail, but it shows the ground to be firm. Alienation is just another feeling, just another shame, that establishes a shared humanity. The awfulness of life lies not in the fact that we’re unknowable to each other, interesting as that fact might be, but that it’s carrying us inexorably away from a youthfulness that we never knew, either, until it began to slip away from us.

Reading Jennifer Egan:
Shameful Triumphs
17 February 2011

Thursday, February 17th, 2011

The game with time begins right away, although it is subtly played at first. The first paragraph of the first tale begins with an episode of what would be shoplifting if a store were the victim, and not a woman in a toilet stall who has left her purse imprudently outside it. It ends, this paragraph, with Sasha, the thief, describing her feelings  about lifting the woman’s wallet to her therapist. Wo we have a foreground present in the therapist’s office, and midway present, an evening not long before the time in the therapists office, and, in the background, several planes of increasing vagueness, the nearest of which is a summary of Sasha’s treatment and her relationship with the doctor, called Coz. Behind this, an inscrutable past — Sasha’s first days in New York, glimpsed at in a list of edifying things to do that she taped to a wall; at the very back, the disappearance of Sasha’s father when she was six. Somewhere in that dark lies an explanation, presumably, for Sasha’s pathology. But we’re not going to look for explanations. What good would it do to know why stealing things invigorates Sasha. It’s enough to keep “wrong and bad and exactly right” in mind.

The episode of stealing ends well: Sasha manages to return the wallet discreetly while confessing to the owner that “It’s a problem I have.” The other woman is so relieved to have her wallet back that she agrees to keep it “between us.” Then Sasha returns to her date, Alex. Until the theft, Sasha and Alex were bored by one another; while she was stealing the wallet, Alex was settling the bill, ready to move on to something else, probably without Sasha. The theft, and then the restoration of the wallet — a sequence of hot maneuvers that Egan manages adroitly — change the date’s temperature, and Alex returns to Sasha’s apartment, where all the things that she has stolen over the years are laid out on two tables. Alex’s attention is caught by the bathtub in the kitchen — a New York arrangement that he has heard about but never seen — but eventually his eyes find the loot.

What’s all this?” Alex asked. 

He’d discovered the tables now and was staring at the pile. It looked like the work of a miniaturist beaver: a heap of objects that was illegible yet clearly not random. To Sasha’s eyes, it almost shook under its load of embarrassments and close shaves and little  riumphs and moments of pure exhilaration. It contained years of her life compressed. The screwdriver was at the outer edge. Sasha moved closer to Alex, drawn to the sight of him taking everything in.

“And how did you feel, standing with Alex in front of all those things you’d stolen?” Coz asked.

Sasha turned her face into the blue couch because her cheeks were heating up and she hated that. She didn’t want to explain to Coz the mix of feelings she’d had, standing there with Alex: the pride she took in these objects, a tenderness that was only heightened by the shame of their acquisition. She’d risked everything, and here was the result: the raw, warped core of her life. Watching Alex move his eyes over the pile of objects stirred something in Sasha. She put her arms around him from behind, and he turned, surprised, but willing.

The tast for me is to relate to this pathology. Not to understand it, much less explain it, but relate to it. The temptation to heave the door shut on Sasha is as overwhelming as is her itch to steal other people’s stuff. That I can fairly grasp. it’s the excitement and the triumph that elude me. I did a lot of small-time rotten things when I was a kid, and they never made me feel anything but desperately ashamed. Each petty crime was its own Fall; until I pulled the chair out from the sixth-grade classmate as she was sitting down, I had no idea just how awful a thing it was to do; the memory, quite vivid fifty years later, still makes me shudder. I was driven by curiosity, but the bits of knowledge turned out to be wildly expensive, and I always wished that I hadn’t wanted to know. With Sasha it seems to be different. I cannot imagine constructing that miniaturist pile. 

But I’m as exciting about trying to get close to this as Sasha was by the woman’s wallet.

Reading Jennifer Egan:
Wrong and Bad and Exactly Right
10 February 2011

Thursday, February 10th, 2011

“It was wrong and bad and exactly right.” This sentence appears in “Sacred  Heart,” the second story in Jennifer Egan’s collection, Emerald City — also her first book. The narrator, Sarah, a fourteen year-old schoolgirl, is on the verge of befriending an oddly attractive classmate named Amanda.

She wore silver bracelets embedded with chunks of turquoise, and would cross her legs and stare into space in a way that suggested she lived a dark and troubled life. We were the same, I thought, though Amanda didn’t know it.

Sarah comes upon Amanda in the girls’ lavatory one day. Amanda is trying to cut herself, but she doesn’t have anything sharp enough. Sarah offers a pin that she is wearing. the pin was a gift from her step-father, whom she dislikes, but without real conviction, “as if my not like him had been decided beforehand by somebody else, and I were following orders.” 

The offer of the pin is not enough; Amanda asks Sarah to do the cutting.  Convinced that Amanda will never be her friend otherwise, Sarah overcomes her revulsion and complies. But Amanda does not quite become her friend. If she and Sarah are “the same,” then Amanda still doesn’t know it. When Sarah confesses that, if she had only one wish in the world, it would be to be Amanda, Amanda pulls away with incredulous laughter: she’s not even going to try to understand Sarah. 

Later, Amanda runs off with her brother (to Hawaii, it turns out), leaving Sarah in despair at having been left behind: her school now becomes the place that Amanda has rejected. This is a theme that runs through Egan’s fiction: home is the place that you leave because you have so literally outgrown it, like a shell that must be sloughed off, that it simply ceases to exist. What’s left is a dull but irritating simulacrum that must be escaped. 

One night, Sarah cuts her arm deeply with a razor blade. It is something between an accident and a suicide; it’s as though she’s offering herself as a sacrifice to Jesus (whom she imagines Amanda’s brother to resemble). The ecstasy is too fast and frightening. She summons her stepfather, who rushes her to the hospital. They make peace. Later, she encounters Amanda, who is now selling shoes in a department store. After a brief, almost desultory conversation, Amanda walks Sarah to the door of the store and gives her a kiss. Sarah treasures the scent of Amanda, only gradually realizing that what she smells is herself. 

You feel that Sarah has negotiated a tricky passage in her life, but you can’t be sure.

In Look at Me, the escapes are recursive. The principal character, Charlotte Swenson, leads a life of escapes that, finally, she escapes once and for all. A rough schematic of her career would have her escaping her childhood home, Rockford, Illinois, at the earliest possible moment, for a life of modelling in New York, where she is happily married for a few years only to find, on assignment in Paris, that she must escape that life. She continues to be a successful model, but she escapes New York at last, on an impromptu road trip with a mysterious foreigner whom she hardly knows. Their destination? Rockport! The foreigner wants to see the heartland. But the road trip turns into something that Charlotte has to escape — which she very nearly kills herself doing. After a long  recuperation (and this is where the novel begins), Charlotte returns to New York to try to resurrect her career, but her reconstructed face is not what it was, and she winds up participating in a bizarre docu-drama about her own (failed) life. In the act of playing herself, Charlotte finally finds resolution — by selling her identity to an Internet outfit that has weirdly prefigures the social network. 

The three other important characters, Charlotte Hauser, her uncle, “Moose” Metcalf,  and the mysterious foreigner, are also engaged in escapes. What is omitted is the reason, the cause, the emergency, the whatever-it-is that makes Egan’s characters believe that they must escape. But it would not be wrong to say that their maneuvers often begin with something that feels wrong and bad and exactly right.

Reading A Visit From the Goon Squad last year was a revelation, but it remains one that I don’t quite understand, and in a series of entries here I want to come to terms with that. I have read Look at Me and The Keep twice; I shall re-read Visit as I work on this project. I don’t mean to slight The Invisible Circus, Egan’s first novel; it’s a great read, not least because it contains the most sustained (but not prolonged) incidents of sexual surrender that I’ve encountered between the covers of a novel. But it did not leave me with the unsettling uncertainty with which I came to the end of the two middle novels, both of which are virtuoso performances as well as ripping yarns.