With her new book, the short-story cycle A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan reinvents herself as a punk Proust, hippie Dos Passos, a rock-and-roll Faulkner who uses her mastery of multiple points of view to address the horrors of memory, perils of narcissism, and the evolution of PR in a tale that spans fifty years in just 272 pages. Goon Squad is not Egan’s first self-reinvention: like Michael Chabon or Karen Joy Fowler, she brings her subtle and vivid prose to a new genre with every book, producing novels and stories that function beautifully both as literary fiction and as urban fairytale or Gothic or picaresque or international thriller. What unifies much of her work is the theme of dangerously transcendent desires. The characters in Egan’s fiction fall into the trap of idealizing the world, themselves, and others: they embrace false epiphanies about the meaning of life; they long to emulate charismatic figures who are not good for them; they are led astray by their memories of the past and visions of the future.
To wit, Egan’s debut novel, The Invisible Circus, is an early example of the Hippie Elegy, that genre of novels, from Pynchon’s Vineland to Nunez’s The Last of Her Kind, that mourns and reconsiders the myth of the sixties. The novel follows teenager Phoebe O’Connor, who feels that she’s just missed the magic of the sixties, in her travels from San Francisco through England, Amsterdam, France, Germany, and Italy as she searches for clues to the fate of her dead sister Faith, a thrill-seeking flower child whose quest for sublime experiences led her to betray her own generous nature and join the Baader-Meinhof Gang. Her second novel, Look at Me, a National Book Award finalist in 2001, is an epic fable about identity, credulity, and what an understanding of post-industrial America can do to your head. Look at Me is intermittently narrated in the first person; but its fairy-tale heroine is a caustic has-been model, Charlotte Swenson, whose journey from New York back to her native Rockford connects her to all of the other disparate characters. The Keep, her third novel, is a Gothic metafiction about the confines of prison, gender, family, and desire itself. The three central characters’ points of view combine to tell a tale of envy, guilt, the inescapable past, and the remote possibility of freedom.