Invisible Circus: A visit from Jennifer Egan

This post was contributed by Amy Clarke, a student on the MA Contemporary Literature & Culture at Birkbeck. This post was originally published by Birkbeck’s Centre for Contemporary Literature.

At any symposium dedicated to a particular writer, as Dr Stephen J. Burn noted in his keynote here, one of the first questions that will arise is whether or not their work is worthy of such immersive attention. In Jennifer Egan’s case, it quickly became apparent not only that her work would stand the test of such detailed scrutiny and deliver rich discussion, but that despite having somewhere between ten and twelve hours to talk about it, we were in danger of running out of time. Which is satisfyingly ironic, really, given that Egan’s most famous novel, the 2011 Pulitzer Prize winning A Visit from the Goon Squad, is ‘explicitly about time’, as she puts it, having taken its inspiration from Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.

Accordingly, the majority of papers presented throughout the day, irrespective of which of Egan’s novels they focused on, tended to discuss time-related themes in all their complexities: ageing, reliving events, ghosts, music, nostalgia. A recurring issue for many of them was the difficulty of getting a grip on the present, whether that be the contemporary moment or a present belonging to the past, like the 1960s of Egan’s first novel, Invisible Circus (1995). Tellingly, when asked how she felt about the possibility of writing a 9/11 novel, Egan commented ‘I’m not there yet’, the main difficulty being that ‘we’re still trying to figure out what it meant’. This issue of defining the present, which features so prevalently as a theme in her work, is evidently very real for her.

Ruth Charnock gave a very inspiring paper on the idea of ‘reliving the event’ in relation to Invisible Circus, asking what it means to have been there in relation to a past event and how we negotiate what ‘there’ means in terms of time and place, nicely bringing together the two elements that Egan defines as her starting points when writing. Charnock also discussed the seemingly paradoxical notion of being nostalgic for an event that one never experienced first time around, and how this is perhaps caused by the mythologisation of certain periods of history, notably via technological media. This idea, also discussed in Mark West’s paper, struck me as having something in common with the concerns of David Foster Wallace’s essay ‘E Unibus Pluram: Television and US Fiction’ (1993). ‘[The] banal, the naive, the sentimental and simplistic and conservative,’ qualities emulated by sixties television (which subsequently inspire nostalgia), were manufactured, Wallace claims, to underplay the realities of corporatism, bureaucracy and racial tension in that era.

Certainly the subject of television in relation to Egan’s work extends beyond this comparison. A Visit from the Goon Squad, in particular, raises the question of how the media of TV and film have impacted on the contemporary novel. This idea was first introduced at the symposium with the Friday night screening of Episode Five from the first season of HBO’s long running series The Sopranos, another inspiration for Goon Squad. The connection between the two is not immediately obvious; but rather than subject matter, the common ground they share concerns their form and ambition. Egan noted how the episodic structure of television dramas likeThe Sopranos is not dissimilar from that of serialised 19th Century fiction and was, in fact, most likely influenced by that form. Egan is interested in how such an episodic structure allows for a multiplicity of sub-plots and creates a feeling of mystery for the viewer, who cannot trace the narrative arc until the story is completed.

Discussing the ambition of The Sopranos, Egan mentioned how she borrowed from the series its idea of pushing character and narrative to extremes. In the episode screened, Tony Soprano is visiting colleges in rural Maine with his teenage daughter when he spots a man who snitched on the mob years back; he duly tracks him down and brutally strangles him. The juxtaposition of family-based innocence against mob violence – and the fact that, despite Tony’s actions, the viewer still empathises with him by the end of the episode – demonstrate for Egan a skill in composition and execution to which she aspires. Egan herself experimented with this simultaneity of humour and darkness most evidently in her 2006 novel, The Keep.

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Jennifer Egan at Senate House, London, photographed by Simon Annand.

In a sense, then, Egan is reclaiming for contemporary fiction an episodic narrative form that originally started in Victorian fiction but was, along the way, filched by television. Indeed Egan appears to enjoy the dialogue between literary and screen arts in all its reciprocations, asserting at one point that ‘the advent of film led to Modernism’. However, rather than simply adopting a televisual form for Goon Squad, Egan moulds it so that her work achieves something unique to fiction, less visual, that cannot be directly re-created on film: each of the novel’s chapters has a different voice, ‘tone, mood, world’, from the others. Although she abandoned the idea of writing a chapter in the style of Byron’s epic poetry (for the simple reason that she discovered she was, to her mind, ‘a horrible poet’), Egan borrows from a wide range of literary forms, drawing on the likes of footnoting, power point and speculative fiction throughout the novel.

The issue of whether or not Goon Squad is in fact a novel was only marginally addressed throughout the conference. Valerie O’Riordanpersuasively suggested that the work could be more accurately described as a short story cycle: a view that seems corroborated by Egan’s explanation that she more or less began the work by accident, writing three separate short stories (which later formed three of the chapters) as ‘procrastination before beginning her next novel’. Charting diagrammatically Egan’s disruption of a linear chronology throughout Goon Squad, Riordan discussed how analepsis and prolepsis are also used to great effect in order to problematise further the idea of time. Riordan also considered how past memories can impact on the present, disabling a person’s ability to move forwards towards the future, as in the case of Bennie in Chapter Two.

Rachael McLennan drew on similar ideas of chronology but in relation to identity and ageing, focusing exclusively on the ‘Safari’ chapter of Goon Squad. She legitimised the novel’s fragmented chronology with the assertion that ‘we don’t move through time in a linear way’ and asked the question of how we locate the core self. Is the core self an earlier self or is it always the present self? McLennan also introduced the idea of belatedness, of being out of time in the present, a concept that was echoed a number of times throughout the day and one which seems appropriate when considering the paradox at the heart of Goon Squad: that a novel so beautifully epitomising contemporary America should owe so much to a form typically located in the early 20th century.

Contrary to this complexity and richness, anyone unfamiliar with Egan’s work and reduced to the age old cliché of having to judge a book by its cover alone could be forgiven for thinking, at first glance, that Egan might be a writer of ‘chick lit’. The current UK covers of The Invisible Circus and 2001’s Look at Me, in particular, carry plaudits from ElleCosmopolitan andO, The Oprah Magazine. I say ‘at first glance’ as they are amongst accolades from SalonThe New Yorker and the Guardian, and once you’ve reached the Ulysses epigraph of Look at Me you know that, at the very least, you’re in ‘thinking-chick lit’ territory. Perhaps what this ultimately indicates is that Egan is managing to strike that elusive balance of simultaneity: writing challenging and experimental literature whilst aiming to reach the wider readership most commonly achieved by ‘popular fiction’. If successful, in a century’s time, Egan may be sat alongside Proust in the canon. But only time will tell; and anyway, ‘Time’s a goon, right?’

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