Friday 28 June 2013

Devouring Books: The Invisible Circus by Jennifer Egan

"The vision tumbled over Phoebe with the force of revelation: she would stand somewhere and look back, she would live a life. Until this moment, she had never truly believed it."

Hey, remember when I read A Visit From The Goon Squad and it was awesome? Well, since then I've been keeping a bit of an eye out for other Jennifer Egan books, and found some and then, obviously, since I'm me, I didn't read them. BUT THEN: Alice and Megs both read Goon Squad sooort of recently, and it made me feel all loving and longing towards Egan, and so I picked up The Invisible Circus and read it. Obviously. Since I wouldn't be telling you about it if I hadn't read it. Ahem.

The Invisible Circus is Egan's first novel, and it's basically a coming-of-age tale about Phoebe, an 18 year old whose entire life so far has really been shaped by two deaths- those of her father when she was about 6, and her sister Faith when she was 10 (and Faith was 17). It is Faith's death that has the stronger impact on her, because Faith was deeply involved in being a big ole hippy, and in true younger sister style (HAH) she looked up to everything she did and thought, and then all of a sudden she was gone. This is kind of where we meet Phoebe at the start of the book, before she sets off on an impromptu trip to Europe to trace Faith's last steps and along the way she unexpectedly finds the beginnings of who she's going to be.

Shit, you guys, that might be the first time I've ever written a synopsis on here, and now I'm ruining it by being excited that I actually did one. But look, I did! This feels very much like a book that's pretty easy to sum up in a few sentences, which isn't an insult so much as just, like, this book knows what it wants to say and sticks to that game plan pretty rigidly. It was nice to read this and realise that Egan is just as good writing in a straightforward and traditional narrative as she is at being innovative and amazing (Seriously, Goon Squad. You want to read it) and really, for a first novel, it's pretty darn good.

Here's one thing that wasn't so great- Phoebe has a lot of memories from the time her family knew her father was sick (so, when she was 5-6) and they're very... vivid. And I'm not saying that she wouldn't be able to remember these things, but she ascribes a lot of meanings to things that she absolutely wouldn't have been able to have as a five year old, and even though she's 18 and recalling all these things to the reader, it's still pretty clear that she's supposed to have thought these things as a child. Which, really, was waaaay unrealistic and quite clearly used for symbolic purposes. I'm not against symbolism AT ALL (when it's done well, a la To Kill A Mockingbird) but here it was just a little bit heavy-handed and at the expense of the character.

Having said that, though, Phoebe as her older self is a character I have a lot of time for. She's very young (not just in age, but in a worldliness sense too) and feels constantly overshadowed by the memory of her sister- or, not even overshadowed so much as let down by the fact that she'll never have the experiences her sister had because, well, it's not the sixties anymore. The thing that really sold this book to me (other than, you know, Jennifer Egan's name on the cover) was the idea of the lost era of the peace and love (and drugs and stuff) of the hippies, and the way Egan covers this is excellent. There's kind of a gap between Phoebe, who watched it from the outside and wishes she'd been a part of it, and the people she meets who were a part of it, but still kind of feel like they were on the outside. Here's one dude's thoughts on the whole thing:
"'The weird thing about that time... is in a way we were nostalgic for it even while it happened. I think it had to do with constantly watching ourselves, on drugs, the whole out-of-body thing, but also on TV, in the papers. We were news. Whatever we did felt so big, so unbelievably powerful, almost like it was happening in retrospect. I've never felt anything like that, before or since. It wasn't real life. Which I guess is what made it great.'"
Yeah, I just... I'm never going to NOT be sad that I was never a hippy, guys. But I still think this is a really interesting perspective on that whole time, nonetheless.

Here's the bottom line on this book- it was good but not great, especially not in the way that A Visit From The Goon Squad was (why am I even comparing them?! I feel like a jerk) and even though I enjoyed reading it, I never felt like I had to read it or I would die (which, as we all know, is the best feeling). Jennifer Egan always writes the lovely words, and that's no different here, and even though it hit some of my hotspots (write 'hippies' or 'flower children' or 'the sixties' into your book and I'm there), it definitely didn't hit all of them and I haven't even told you about the bit where she has sex A LOT and really it starts to feel gratuitous. 

I've just realised that this is the worst bottom line ever, so here it really is- it's not the greatest book ever, and it's not even Egan's greatest book, but it's still worth a read, especially if you're all into hippies and coming-of-age stories and also in looking at the development of certain writers because there are definitely points of excellence here where you can see the writer Egan is going to become. So, yeah. Read it? If you want. But you don't have to.


  1. I'm glad to read your review of this one. I loved Goon Squad so I just read The Keep. I was wanting to check out more of Egan's work and I really didn't love it. So I was super curious about this one. I think I'll skip it for now. I actually just re-read Goon Squad and it was so good... again!

    1. Oh nooooo, I have The Keep as well! I absolutely didn't hate this book at all, and it was good *enough*, it just wasn't *that* good. The blurb of The Keep makes me think that I'll like it a fair bit, so hopefully I'll like it more than you did!

  2. Maybe we sabotaged ourselves by reading Goon Squad first! Because what book could ever possibly compaaaaaare?

    I just bought The Keep, as you know, and I'm really impatient to finish what I'm reading so I can start it. Fingers crossed.

    1. I think we have almost definitely sabotaged ourselves by reading Goon Squad first. Because this wasn't AT ALL bad, but it was just sort of like anyone could have written it? And I was like 'Jenniferrrr, be more Jennifer-y!'

      The blurb for The Keep seems more promising though? I don't know, Imma let you read it and then WE SHALL SEE!