This summer, I brought my Nook with me on my summer vacation to catch up on some e-reading. After all, this was one of the main reasons I'd bought an e-reader: to reduce my load while traveling.
I started with The Keep by Jennifer Egan, whose breakout novel-in-stories, A Visit from the Goon Squad, I reviewed last August. The Keep hooked me from the start. A New Yorker named Danny, whose assorted hustles have gotten him in trouble with some dangerous thugs, vamooses to a far-flung European country to help his cousin Howard turn a medieval castle into a resort. The story takes a harrowing turn with an anecdote about the cousins when they were teens. What starts as a cruel prank ends in psychological trauma. When it's much too late to do anything about it, Danny wonders how Howard feels about that distant episode now.
Just as the reader begins to wonder what Danny hopes to gain at Howard's castle, a second voice intrudes: the story's author, Ray. It seems that Ray's in prison taking a writing class and the narrative featuring Danny and Howard is his homework. Strange? Yes. Intrusive? Very. But it somehow works.
"You? Who the hell are you? That's what someone must be saying right about now. Well, I'm the guy talking. Someone's always doing the talking, just a lot of times you don't know who it is or what their reasons are."
Danny and Ray are two very different men—one vain yet conniving, the other direct but untrustworthy—but are they all that different? Could the impregnable fortress at the heart of the castle be a metaphor for prison? The Keep's twists and turns propelled me to the end, and when it was over, I marveled at how badly I'd guessed the outcome.
I was sad to say goodbye to The Keep, so I downloaded Egan's first novel, The Invisible Circus. It's a very different kind of book, more straightforward, with all the earmarks of a novel whose protagonist, Phoebe, is destined to lose her innocence.
"The dullness of Phoebe's bedroom met her like a blow: polar bear wallpaper, rows of faded stuffed animals, a wicker chair that crackled when you sat in it."
After graduating from high school, Phoebe decides to travel to Europe and follow in the footsteps of her elder sister, Faith, who made a similar trip 10 years earlier. The problem is, Faith committed suicide in Italy. Phoebe is more levelheaded than her sister but (doppelganger alert) becomes more like her at each stop, culminating in an epic freak-out in—wait for it—a medieval castle.
If this sounds somewhat similar, remember that Sasha, who appears in three of the stories in A Visit from the Goon Squad, also had serious problems in the old country. Furthermore, it raises the question: What the hell happened to Egan in Europe? In interviews, she's discussed how a trip abroad replete with petty theft and crippling loneliness was instrumental in her decision to become a writer.
Although the payoff is fulfilling, the prose is a bit flatfooted compared with the hyper-realistic hijinks on display in The Keep.
In Egan's second novel, Look at Me, she takes her language and storytelling up several notches.
There are three storylines: a model, an academic and a young girl—all connected by a woman who's barely in the book. The main story is the most compelling: After a horrific car accident renders Vivian, a fashion model, all but unrecognizable, she attempts to get her career going again. Vivian is reminiscent of Ab Fab's Patsy Stone: a hard-drinking fashionista with a sharp eye and a sharper tongue.
"But it was back in New York my drinking, as readers of charts like to say, spiked; it spiked the warm milk I drank before bed, and gradually my early evenings, when I sipped vodka tonics on my sectional sofa and studied the faux-Gothic ruin of Roosevelt Island. One morning I found myself looking for booze at nine-forty-five. There was none left."
A Visit from the Goon Squad nearly had me crying into my keyboard, and Egan did it to me again at the end of Look at Me. In the climax, she sets the stage so that all three of her protagonists come together. Even though I could see it coming, the final scene cracked me open.
Emerald City, a short-story collection, is the least interesting of Egan's books, but these stories contain the seeds of the novels that follow. There are stories about likable conmen and unlikable models, fractured families and devastating trips abroad. The most interesting of these is "The Stylist," which was published in The New Yorker and launched Egan's writing career.
Egan is presently working on a novel about World War II. I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that it will be set in Europe and involve a castle, a con artist and some homesick Americans.
Jim Ruland blogs at vermin.blogs.com and you can find him on Twitter @JimVermin.