Turning Back the Pages

This month in our new column, Booklyn, Michael Sauter examines the roots of NYC’s most literary borough, then devours Jennifer Egan’s entire body of work

When I moved across the river to Brooklyn last year, I had no idea that I was entering a world so full of people like me. By which I mean writers. Writers who are still struggling. Or in the case of so many of us in the print-is-dying decade, struggling again.

But then I kept bumping into these people-like-me and hearing about their works in progress, and screenplays that had attracted interest, and blogs that were being adapted for TV and solo, no-agent-needed flights into the world of Kindle. And a smile glimmered on my lips. I saw the light and it was not bad. And I knew that what people kept saying was true: Brooklyn is the new Greenwich Village. The new Left Bank. The new place to go to be young and poetic and struggling to be heard–or even not so young, more prosaic than poetic, and already being heard loud and clear.

Literary Brooklyn: The Writers of Brooklyn and the Story of American City Life, by Evan Hughes; 337 pages; Henry Holt & Company; $17

And yet, the way Evan Hughes sees it in his new book, Literary Brooklyn, this is only the latest wave in a long tradition–one that dates back to the mid 19th century, when Walt Whitman, the original struggling Brooklyn writer, decided out of desperation to self-publish his book of poems Leaves of Grass out of a print shop on Fulton Street. Yes, you read that right: The first great work of American poetry started out as the 1850s equivalent of vanity publishing. And this, I should point out, was before the age of e-books.

I know what you’re thinking: That was Walt Whitman. And it was 150 years ago. But Hughes’s book is about how history keeps repeating itself, how generation after generation, a hall of fame of literary lions has arisen from anonymity in NYC’s most famous outer borough: In chronological order: Hart Crane, John Dos Passos, Henry Miller, Thomas Wolfe, Bernard, Malamud, Richard Wright, Carson McCullers, Truman Capote, W.H. Auden, Norman Mailer, William Styron and Arthur Miller. And those are just the most famous names.

Many of these authors (Mailer, Malamud, the Millers) were born and raised here, the sons of immigrants, paying their dues on their way up the literary ladder. Many others (Wolfe, Wright, McCullers, Capote, Styron) migrated from the reconstructed South to the cultural capital that was New York–whereupon they found Manhattan (even then) too fast, too furious, too pricey. As Styron wrote in Sophie’s Choice, “In those days cheap apartments were almost impossible to find in Manhattan, so I had to move to Brooklyn.” I don’t know a writer who can’t relate to that.

Put enough writers in one place and they become a community. Collectively, over time, they leave an imprint. They leave a legacy. Perhaps no other city’s legacy has been so enduring as Brooklyn’s. Hughes links the borough’s history of creative ferment to its evolution as a city unto itself, constructing a sturdy timeline of mini-biographies, etched against a backdrop of a burgeoning Brooklyn: an escape from New York that grew from little more than livestock-heavy frontier outpost, to industrialized epicenter of early 20th century immigration, to blighted, racially torn war zone of the 1970s and 80s, to today’s revitalized (albeit semi-gentrified) haven, not just for writers, but for artists and thinkers of all disciplines. To quote Hughes quoting New Yorker essayist Malcolm Gladwell: “Intelligent thought is not dead in New York. It has simply moved to Brooklyn.”

Hard to argue with that, or to dispute Hughes’s observation that the current “collection of accomplished authors, covering a wide range in background, vision and technique” is unprecedentedly large, and that “it seemingly grows by the month.” The list Hughes cites is so long (and far from complete) that he can do little more than mention most of the authors in passing. But just to show you what he’s talking about I’ll list a handful myself: Rick Moody, Jhumpa Lahiri, Colson Whitehead, Susan Choi, Nicole Krauss, Julie Orringer, Jonathan Ames and Jennifer Egan. Someday those names may warrant a Literary Brooklyn II.

*************

I’m going to give you the last name on that list again. Jennifer Egan. I do this not because I think she needs any introduction to anyone reading a book column, but because I just can’t think of another writer out there who’s got more game than she does. Of course this is just my opinion, but, well, look at the year she’s had: Practically universal acclaim for her latest novel, A Visit From The Goon Squad, culminating in the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. All that plus a healthy run on the best-seller list.

Which is why I’m guessing this book really doesn’t need a recommendation from me. The best I can tell you is that this book was my introduction to Egan (I didn’t always have a book review column, you know), and that it made me want to go back and check out what else this brilliant stylist had turned out. Maybe you had the same reaction and have been contemplating checking out her other titles. But if you haven’t yet, here is where I earn my keep and enlighten you: Do it. Just go buy her other books. All of them. You will not be disappointed. Is everything Egan has written as dazzlingly, dynamically edifying as Goon Squad? Well, of course not. An artist like her raises the bar for herself as she goes along. But here’s the thing: The bar was pretty high right from the start.

To see how Egan’s artistry has evolved with each work of fiction, I read them in order of creation. That meant starting with Emerald City, a collection of stories published between 1989 -1996. Even back then she had it. All these stories have it. They’re elegantly allusive, deftly nuanced sketches of people in flux, being lived by people adrift, looking for a place to land, or a maybe a place to get back to: from the teenage model abroad longing to get back home in “The Stylist” to the adolescent girl, describing her family’s off-kilter dynamic, years after her older brother accidentally stepped on a gas pedal in a garage, and killed their mother, in “One Piece.” Only one of Egan’s gifts is the way she can swing from bittersweet to brutal in the blink of an eye.

Good as they are, these stories merely set the general tone for Egan’s exhilaratingly imaginative quartet of novels, the first of them the deeply affecting The Invisible Circus (1996). Starting out in 1978 San Francisco, in a kind of delayed hangover from the kaleidoscopic Sixties, the book follows the wandering journey of its protagonist, Phoebe, a recent high school graduate still haunted by the apparent suicide, years earlier, of her older sister Faith–a restless, wreckless, free spirit whose constant need for a bigger, better rush ultimately led to tragedy. Searching for the answers to WHY, seeking to understand who her sister really was, Phoebe impulsively embarks on an extended European road trip, retracing Faith’s footsteps from city to city, even as she recalls, in achingly poignant flashbacks, the lost sister she idealized. She’s in search of Faith in more ways than one, and of course she’s trying to find herself.

Synopsized, this may sound like a story you’ve heard before, but not like this you haven’t. Invisible Circus will wow you with the crystal clarity of its vivid prose and move you with the sheer depth of emotion in all its characters–not just Phoebe and Faith, but also their doomed, failed artist father, their benumbed mother and their under-nurtured brother: all flawed, damaged people who come to feel like new friends you want to reach out and save.

A lot of people need saving in all of Egan’s books, although not all of them are so easy to embrace, maddening as they are. Still, one can’t help being intrigued, even enthralled by their often extreme circumstances–especially those of the two Charlottes in Look at Me (2001). One Charlotte is an aging fashion model struggling to reinvent herself after her face has been unrecognizably reconstructed following a car accident. The other is a plain, unpopular teenager who yearns for love and attention, even if it means obsessively pursuing a mysterious new math teacher. These two Charlottes fatefully cross paths in their fading hometown of Rockford, Illinois, where their lives also overlap with other Rockford residents who are not what they seem, or maybe just not who they used to be. These are all people at odds with their true selves–what the elder Charlotte calls “shadow” selves–even as they try to maintain public personae largely shaped by an outside world increasingly preoccupied with image. When so many assumed identities converge, collision is inevitable. At least it is here.

The intricately interwoven life stories of Look At Me heralded an ambitious, and altogether successful stylistic leap for Egan, who took an even bolder one with The Keep (2006). The main plot involves Danny and Howard, two cousins who were left psychologically warped (in very different ways) by a cruel childhood prank that went too far. After 20 years apart, they’ve reunited at a dank, abandoned castle somewhere in Germany. Technology-addicted Danny is a vaguely shady minor player on the fringes of the Manhattan underworld; investment vulture Howard is a fabulously rich eccentric determined to create a resort destination out of that hulking old castle–which is forbiddingly remote and largely in ruins. It’s also possibly haunted.

Yes, this is Egan, venturing into the realms of gothic mystery and ghost story. But even as she’s repurposing genre conventions to more seriously satirical ends, her narrative gets repeatedly interrupted by the slangy voice of a convict named Ray, who, as it turns out, is writing this novel-within-a-novel, while dealing with his abstractly parallel life behind bars. Yes, this is Egan going meta. And big surprise: She pulls it off with élan, and unexpected power. Even if you don’t usually go for this sort of thing, go with this. Trust me: You’ll get hooked.

Having said that, let me confess that it did take me a while to warm up to narrator Ray, although his prickly personality does quickly elevate him beyond the role of narrative device. And it took me even longer to feel either Danny or Howard, who, after all, aren’t exactly easy to like, and are also, well, not real. But slowly, surely, I got on board with all these people, even Danny and Howard. Because Ray may have only made-up the horrifying childhood prank that changed them both forever–but you feel its devastating effects so acutely that it couldn’t seem more, you know, real.

As much as anyone, Danny and Howard are classic Egan characters: Haunted, altered or at least knocked sideways by something that happened in the past, whether it was a psychologically seismic event (the death of Faith in The Invisible Circus) or a slow erosion of the soul over the passage of time (the fate of Goon Squad’s Bennie, once an inspired music scene mover-shaker, now a hollowed-out record label mogul). As more than one Goon Squad character observes, “Time’s a goon.” That’s for sure.

The sad truth about passing time is that so many things get lost along the way. Youth, of course, and innocence, and hope and dreams and love. And then there is time itself, marching on, irretrievable. There’s no stopping it and there’s no going back. We’re left with what it leaves us.

But Jennifer Egan’s books leave us with light. They confront these sad truths, with unexpected wit, unvarnished wisdom and an enormous depth of feeling for her people. Her flawed, damaged people. The ones you want to reach out and save.

Michael Sauter is a Brooklyn-based arts and entertainment journalist who has written about books for such publications as Entertainment Weekly and Publisher’s Weekly. He still hasn’t ruled out writing the Great American Novel, but isn’t holding his breath.

Note: Many of these books are also available as ebooks from Greenlight Bookstore, one of our sponsors.