September 10, 2012


by Jennifer Egan
514 pages, Corsair

Review by Marc Nash

This book turned out to be a slog. A book about alienation that just alienates the reader. I think if it was possible to trim by 50%, then the interesting ideas at the core of it, plus Egan's flourishes with language could have made this book work. But at 500+ pages it just meanders to not much purpose. It's a book about the surface of modern life, how difficult it is to discover one's true identity and humanity, among the hyper-real, culturally mediated personas we all adopt.

The only way I can break this open is to consider each of the characters in turn. I wish this blog's formatting allowed graphs, since in a way plotting them on a graph would best serve as a way to chart their ups and downs and personality changes. All the characters are very self-reflective and are forever teetering between two contradictory poles and more often than not manage to inhabit both and neither simultaneously, not very satisfactorily it has to be said. It's this veering between discovering their own authentic core and the persistent feeling of hollowness and mask which makes it a frustrating read. The characters are beseeching us to 'look at them' and yet also retreat from us when we do.

Charlotte Swenson is the putative first person narrator, though ultimately she has no more central prominence than several of the other characters. She is a fashion/glamour model who has had to have her face rebuilt after a car crash and no one recognises her from her previous life, which is a conceit I didn't really buy into straight off the bat. She reflects back on her life, tries to forge a new life to fit around her plastic identity, veering between celebrating her anonymity after a life of high public profile and yet trying to recapture it. Her story lurches and shudders towards inconsequentiality, including the rather prosaic truth behind the car crash at the end. She does have tantalising glimpses of profundity; Egan endows her with the ability to see people's shadow sides, those true cores that they repress in order to present the public self that they manage to do. This works very well, but Charlotte doesn't really use it to any end. Her dissociated character reminded be a bit of Tom McCarthy's novel "Remainder", but there the conceits were far more successfully embedded into the narrative there than they are here where Charlotte manages to remain on the outside of the novel she is supposed to be guiding us through as narrator. To my mind she almost drifts out of the novel in its last third in terms of impact or significance, even though she is notionally there until the final page.

Moose Metcalfe, a former High School Jock, has had a mental breakdown and now resides uneasily as a minor academic. His specialism, his monomaniacal obsession with the forensic detail of the evolutionary history of his town Rockville, in the belief that it will yield him the ultimate clarity of vision, to unlock the meaning and purpose of human existence. His story is the least satisfying of all. I cared for his plight even less than that of Charlotte. It was leaden, with all the details of Rockville's development through 200 years of history and change, mainly portrayed through snippets of essays on the subject written by his niece Charlotte Hauser who he is tutoring. It was here I wondered if Egan was titling at the epic American sweep of Philip Roth's "American Pastoral" (his hometown of Rockville is where all surveys of 'Middle America' originate their sample audience from), but she falls very short because there is no life in these parts of the novel. Moose is always teetering between his final great insight that will unlock all the mysteries of life and that of total breakdown. A teetering that never really shifts towards either pole and therefore lacks tension. I really could have done with him being excised from the novel completely.

Charlotte Hauser, is an unhappy, plain Jane bespectacled teen. Charlotte begins as a more rounded portrayal than the other characters as she begins an affair with a mysterious older man. Her blossoming, her sentimental readings of their affair, how it impacts on the rest of her licit life, are reasonably well served up. But when she starts her tutorials with Uncle Moose, her story becomes less interesting. It revolves around her essays on Rockville, her sporadic attempts to reconnect with friends her own age and the ongoing affair. Again she ends up being a character who evanesces and recedes through the novel although she is positioned at the heart of its climax.

Ricky Hauser is her younger brother who is battling against leukaemia. He isn't a major character and again it's a bit jarring when he becomes centre focus for a spot, although the scene of his older friends taking him to a brothel and his tender treatment by the whore is rather beautifully rendered, but otherwise marooned without much by way of a connection to the rest of the book. By now you may be getting a picture of these characters who stride on to the page, have a brief illumination under the spotlight and then slink off. All MC'd by Charlotte Swenson although she is the master of nothing and heartily sick of ceremonies.

Aziz is the mystery ex-boyfriend of Charlotte Swenson, the older lover of Charlotte Hauser. He deliberately passes from identity to identity. He is also the subject of a missing persons case with a PI that becomes part of Charlotte Swenson's life, Aziz's story is almost brilliant but ultimately unsatisfying. A would-be Arab terrorist sleeper in the US, heart seething with rage. But gradually he goes native, seduced by Americana. But while the details of his conversion are well handled, they don't quite add up to a believable inner journey from one extreme to the other. He physically flits off into the sunset while the others only do so metaphorically.

There is also Irene Maitlock, an academic and writer who ends up scripting an alternate life for Charlotte Swenson for both of their commercial benefit. There is Elen Metcalfe, mother of Charlotte H and Charlotte Swenson's best childhood friend, who stayed in middle America Rockville while Charlotte S swanned off to New York and fashion shoots all over Europe. And so on and so on. All characters looking for something, in this case a better novel vehicle I fear. Egan is too good a writer of words to be dismissed entirely out of hand. But this novel does not work. It's ironic that two of the best lines in the novel actually refer to hard & fast realities in our world, among a book of shifting, elusive realities: '"So here's where we are," Thomas said, like a newscaster switching from genocide to sports.'  And 'they were all over the world, McDonalds, colonizing, anesthetizing and it was said that no country containing one had been at war since. Of course they were already defeated.'

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