The Short Version: Danny is a wired-in New Yorker who, when he runs out of luck, accepts a slightly mysterious invitation from his cousin to join him in refurbishing a castle in Europe. Things go sideways from the moment he arrives and not everything is what it seems – about the castle, about his cousin, about the people working with them, or about this story. See, Danny’s story is also being written by a prison inmate named Ray in order to impress his teacher, Holly – and the connection between all three stories doesn’t become clear until much later…
The Review: Considering how I prosleytize about Jennifer Egan’s writing, you’d think I would’ve read more of it by now. But I’ve only ever read Goon Squad up to now. Most of what I know comes from the things other people have said to me: that each of her books is different, intrinsically, from the others and that she still manages to retain this unique singular voice. I can now tell you that, from a sample size of 2, those things hold true.
The most remarkable thing, I think, is the way Egan is experimenting with form. A Visit from the Goon Squad, obviously, had radical formic deviations (including the now-[in]famous PowerPoint chapter) – but this book does some pretty impressive gymnastics as well. The thing is, this excited me even more because I wasn’t prepared for it. I knew, going in, that the PowerPoint existed. That’s all I knew, but I still knew. This book, I had no idea. In fact, it’s like the publishers went so far as to make sure that you weren’t fully aware of what you were getting into. Perhaps that’s why there are so many irritated reviews who mention that “this book isn’t what I thought it was going to be.”
To be fair, it isn’t. At all. I recognize that – I was looking for something a little more October (quel surprise) and I thought, judging from the jacket synopsis, that’s what I was getting. Instead, there’s not all that much Gothic other than the setting and some hints of it that pop up now and then. There’s a recurring theme of ghosts – and quite possibly some actual ghostly/supernatural activity – but the book doesn’t feel about that. It doesn’t feel like a Gothic novel; it feels like a novel that has some Gothic trappings about it. Using the form to address certain other things.
I wonder if that’s another reason people were frustrated by this book: the story-within-a-story (if we want to call it that – and, for those who’ve read the book, I’m aware that the levels of story-nesting are nebulously vague at best) seems to so consciously be An Attempt To Write A Gothic Novel at times. SPOILERS A-COMIN’, by the way. Unavoidable from here on out, sorry.
So anyway, I realize that the most remarkable thing about this is that, if she wanted, Egan could write a killer Gothic novel. She could write a killer anything. But the fact that she’s able to write what we later find out is actually the first attempt at writing anything, ever by a prison inmate… suddenly what feels so Capital Letter-y becomes a downright virtuoso flourish. Egan has such a command of her writing skills that she’s able to not just middlingly but expertly create the voice of someone else, someone completely inexperienced in writing. So when Ray makes odd stylistic choices or interjects with an “I want to explain”, you realize that it isn’t a quirk. It’s this guy trying to explain what he’s doing because he doesn’t really have any frame of reference and so he’s just trying to say “this is why I did this, don’t be mad” to both his teacher and his classmates. The most brilliant moment comes early on (before you really have a sense of what’s happening), when Ray writes the following:
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. My teacher, Holly, told me that.
That single moment just knocked me out, man. Flat on my back. And from that moment on, I was prepared to roll with whatever the novel threw my way. Because that’s such an honest moment and one that was so unexpected in a traditional narrative. It was like Egan was showing me practical magic, not sleight-of-hand or trickery. And if you can get on board with that, then you can just let Egan take you away.
Where does she take you, though? Ah yes. So the strange fever dream that exists in Ray’s written narrative is one thing… but then we’ve got this guy, Ray, in jail. Writing. Saying that he heard this story from someone. And you have to wonder, “what the hell?” One of the most propulsive forces of the novel is that burning question of “how do these two things connect?” and when the answer arrives, it does so in such a smooth, discrete, and simple way that you kick yourself for not seeing it sooner and/or say “of course, that’s how it had to be.” If I have any problem with the novel, it’s perhaps the ending – Part III – which effectively introduces a new narrator and serves as an epilogue of sorts. But I think the issue is that, without it, there’s a huge question of the reality of the story Ray has told us. It’d be a perfectly acceptable choice to leave us with that question, of course – but I prefer this ending, one that continues to blur the line between fantasy and reality instead of just not saying anything about it (it being the line). It feels like another bit of narrative magic and I like that, a lot.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. It’s a complicated and complex novel, especially for its tiny size. I’m continuing to turn it over and examine it in my mind, several hours later. Like a fine, fine wine, I’m swishing it around my mouth and discovering new flavors. For the writing and the audacious magic Egan pulls off, the book gets top marks. Plain and simple. But there’s something – a gut feeling – that tempers my praise a little. I don’t know what – perhaps I am a little disappointed that it wasn’t quite what I thought it would be. Perhaps I’m just realizing that the book is, for all its positives, a little…. slight. It’s still very good – if you aren’t reading Jennifer Egan, you need to be doing so IMMEDIATELY – but there’s a little piece of it that feels like it was almost easy for her. I don’t know quite what I’m saying. I loved this book – I just didn’t adore it. Read it.