Gotham Diary:
13 October 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.