Reviews — From the November 2017 issue

Keeping Up Appearances

Jennifer Egan’s shallow depths

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Manhattan Beach, by Jennifer Egan. Scribner. 448 pages. $28.

It’s always tempting, but almost never fun, to try to see what one looks like from the outside. There’s a glimpse of an American future near the end of Jennifer Egan’s fuguelike novel A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010), and it’s looking pretty bleak. We don’t know quite what year it is, but time has passed, lives have been lived, and disappointments have been swallowed. The air is darkening as ever higher skyscrapers rise all around and surveillance helicopters drone overhead. Communication, even between those in the same room, now feels easier via device, in an increasingly truncated textspeak that has begun to infect thought as well. Entertainment must be calibrated to appeal to the broadest spectrum possible, especially to very small children, of whom there are an inordinate number because, as a parent thinks to himself, “if thr r children, thr mst b a fUtr, rt?” None of this would make perfect sense as a prediction, but like many depressing fantasies of the future, by turning up the dial on some of the sadder, pettier, more undignified aspects of the present, it does have a certain power to make us uncomfortable.

“Speed Graphic View Camera, circa 1940,” by Susan Dobson. Courtesy the artist and Michael Gibson Gallery, London, Ontario

Most of Goon Squad takes place in the recentish past, yet gives the same slightly unsettling sense of peering in from elsewhere at what should be people like yourself — the effect is akin to seeing old photographs or rereading an ancient diary and thinking, What happened? Did I really feel that way about it? Time is the “goon” of the title — or Egan herself is, exploding a whole bunch of imaginary lives into little scenes and fragments and then letting us piece them back together haltingly and imperfectly. Many characters are only sketched in, and the narrative skips back and forth in time and among people, full of abrupt switches and lacunae. The years lost to a drug addiction go by in a sentence or two; several marriages and their acrimonious ends are dealt with in a paragraph; and ambitious, promiscuous young sellouts are suddenly gone-to-seed nostalgists struggling to regain the occasional hard-on. The characters themselves aren’t given much room to marvel over these turns and transformations, but there are exceptions, as when a down-on-his-luck janitor visits an old friend, now a swanky record exec, to ask, “What happened between A and B?” “A is when we were both in the band, chasing the same girl,” he reminds the exec. “B is now.” (Silently, he translates the question: “We were both a couple of asswipes, and now only I’m an asswipe: why?”)

The central brilliance of Goon Squad is its cheeky ability to turn what could have been weaknesses into strengths. It’s a trick Egan manages through her mastery of rhythm, which is to say by echo and repetition and by leaving out most of what lies between A and B — and, of course, Z. Set amid the music industry’s 1970s heyday and decline, the book includes an analysis of the uses of the pause in pop songs. Like an album, the novel is structured by its own artful pauses, which provide leeway for the expressions of heightened feeling in between. What might seem sentimental becomes an insight into the workings of people’s sentiment; figures who could be mere stereotypes become real, self-conscious creatures striving to live up to those stereotypes, or simply souls whose more complicated interior worlds, like everyone’s, are hidden from those around them; what might have been a lazy wrapping-up of a plot strand becomes a vivid evocation of how people affect us and then vanish, the rest of their stories permanently obscured. In other words, what is cheap grows resonant, what is absent becomes something to savor. The gaps and sudden metamorphoses can in themselves produce a startling effect of reality — the more paltry and cliché the frustrated hopes, the more recognizable they seem. The book offers a formal rendering of themes Egan has been drawn to throughout her career: the performance of the self; a prenostalgic longing for some more authentic experience; a chronological claustrophobia in which the American promise of a wide-open vista of possible lives is always already broken.

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’s most recent review for Harper’s Magazine, “Are You Kidding?,” appeared in the October 2016 issue.

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