This is Jennifer Egan’s first novel (I seem to have been reading an awful lot of first novels recently), and from what I could gather, her suceeding works were somewhat bolder and more unconvential in their treatment of the novel form than this one, which is basically a straightforward realistic narrative about a girl growing up and stepping out of the shadow of her older sister who had been determining all her previous life.
The Invisible Circus has “first novel” written all over it: While it is very cleverly constructed, there is a certain awkwardness in the way it shows off its themes, makes its motifs and imagery rather too obvious and blatant; it is trying a bit too hard to impress its readers, putting one in mind of an over-eager puppy. But then, just as with cute puppies, we tend to be lenient towards first novels and look on their good sides first, of which The Invisible Circus indeed has many, by far outweighing the few small niggles.
The novel’s first part takes place at home in San Francisco and is centred around the memories Phoebe, the novel’s protagonist, retains of her father and the way he always favoured her elder sister Faith and ends with her mother destroying the image of him Phoebe always had held; in the second part Phoebe is travelling through Europe following the traces of Faith and it ends with Phoebe throwing her sister’s picture and postcards into the Seine; finally, the third part (taking up about half of the novel) is about Phoebe almost literally becoming her sister and ends with her letting go of Faith after learning the truth about her and, in a way, finding herself. The novel’s latter half falls somewhat apart, at least in contrast to the tightly structured first one, and I think I stumbled across several editorial oversights in that part, too (and they must have been quite glaring if I noticed them), unless there is some problem with the e-book missing parts which I suppose is also possible.
The Invisible Circus captures the mood and atmosphere of the late seventies and their sixties-nostalgia perfectly (one nice touch is how Phoebe is so wrapt up in her pining for the Sixties past that she completely misses the exciting things happening in her present – there is only a single, very brief mention of a punk during her stay in London and she barely even notices him). Egan also paints a very vivid picture of both the heady enthusiasm and the utter cluelessness of youth, of what it feels like to pass the threshold into adulthood, both the joy and pain of it. I think The Invisible Circus works even better as a coming-of-age story than as period portrait, Jennifer Egan’s depiction of Phoebe’s growing-pangs so keen and intense at times that it got under my skin and made me feel outright uncomfortable.
Despite some minor flaws, I liked The Invisible Circus very much. In fact, now that I am writing this, I cannot help but notice that those flaws I mentioned earlier, classical first novel flaws, are also a sign of a novelist growing into her craft, growing up as a novelist – in fact, there does seem to be a very marked analogy between the novel and its protagonist, both struggling to stand on their own feet, to find their own voice (which makes me wonder whether there might be some writing idol whose overwhelming influence The Invisble Circus tries to escape?). So maybe the flaws are not flaws at all, but a kind of metafictional mimesis, form imitating subject matter. In either case, this is as a very impressive debut, and Jennifer Egan another author I will have to read more of.