Time's a goon: Jennifer Egan sets the clock ticking on country's future
The more we embrace the future, the more we long for the past. The present seems a bridge between the two.
It's familiar territory for Western novelists. The folk in George Eliot's "Middlemarch," set in 1832 Britain, knew the railroad meant progress but hated it because it disturbed the bucolic countryside.
Mark Twain hailed the industrial age, sung the praises of the mechanical typesetter that bankrupted him and half-jokingly wrote that "a country without a patent office ... couldn't travel any way but sideways or backways."
Yet, he longed for the quiet and gentility of a quiet country life away from the noisy new age.
Jennifer Egan leads off her new novel with a quote from that master of lost time, Marcel Proust, about recapturing the self "that we were long ago."
For her, that time was the eve of the 1980s, a time when "the hippies are getting old, they blew their brains on acid and now they are begging on street corners. ... Their hair is tangled, and their bare feet are thick and gray as shoes. We're sick of them."
Her future is somewhere around 2020, maybe a pun on hindsight, after "two generations of war and surveillance had left people craving the embodiment of their own unease in the form of a lone, unsteady man on a slide guitar."
In a Woodstock-like concert near the Sept. 11 site in Manhattan that ends this time-traveling commentary on our culture, a wasted rocker from the pre-digital age performs:
"... ballads of paranoia and disconnection ripped from the chest of a man you knew just by looking had never had a page or a profile... who was part of no one's data, a guy who had lived in the cracks all these years, forgotten and full of rage in a way that now registered as pure. Untouched."
How we get to this point -- this shock of recognition that our technology can smother our humanity -- takes us on a complicated, sometimes confusing journey of about 40 years. It's not a linear one. In Ms. Egan's immense imagination, her book is many stories, a swirling merry-go-round of disparate lives connected by the rock-music culture.
The goon squad of her graceless title is time itself. "Time's a goon, right?" says Bernie, part of Ms. Egan's collection of uncompleted lives, personal histories that all run together in a tragic-comedy of addiction, failed relationships, suicide attempts, some successful, irresponsibility, narcissism and a litany of neurosis. Just average folks.
Ms. Egan's concept is seductive, and her judicious marshalling of the right details of our contemporary life reveal a writer's peripheral vision that sees the whole playing field.
Some descriptions are stunning: a husband takes his passion for a disappointing wife and "folds it in half ...then in half again ... then in half again so he hardly felt it."
Scenes of modern domestic life with its collection of things purchased to mollify children and make their parents feel smug are juxtaposed with the squalor of a runaway's hovel in Naples or the claustrophobia of Manhattan apartments.
The novelist's oddly optimistic picture of the future, where the young, now puritanical and seriously educated, are wiser than the adults is one full of possibilities and provocation.
Let's forgive Ms. Egan for her tiresome, uninteresting characters on the strength of the fascinating vision of the days ahead. She's written a novel that is more than entertainment. It's a provocation to consider deeply life today -- and tomorrow.
First Published June 27, 2010 12:00 am