12 November 2011

After THE INVISIBLE CIRCUS leaves town

After the runaway critical success of her fourth novel A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD, many people are going to expect a similar experience from Jennifer Egan's debut THE INVISIBLE CIRCUS, and some of them will be disappointed. Much as it pains me to start there, it's how I found my way to THE INVISIBLE CIRCUS, whose fragmentation and shifts in time indeed feel much more conventional than those in GOON SQUAD. I still found it satisfying and sad, if not dazzling.

THE INVISIBLE CIRCUS runs along three tracks: The first, in 1978, traces eighteen-year-old Phoebe O'Connor's trip to Europe to retrace the steps taken by her older sister Faith in 1968 before Faith disappeared and was found dead in Italy. Faith's trip -- relived stop by stop thanks to a series of postcards she sent Phoebe of her trip -- is the second track. Faith and Phoebe were never close, not only because of the brother between them, but because of their father who favored his oldest child and died young. Memories of their childhood, and of the last glimpses Phoebe had of her sister as she became absorbed into the San Francisco hippie underground. (The Invisible Circus is a club Faith and her older boyfriend Wolf, who was traveling with her in Europe, would come home from at 4 in the morning, where Phoebe waited up to hang out with them and their friends.)

The circumstances of Faith's death are suspicious (and get even more so), but that's only Phoebe's pretext for the trip she takes in direct defiance of her mother's wishes. What THE INVISIBLE CIRCUS really shares with ...GOON SQUAD apart from more superficial similarities is her chase after the sense of belonging, the need to feel part of something bigger. The dissolution of Faith's old "scene" in San Francisco mirrors the slow separation of her family after her death, to the point that Phoebe has to find out about her mother's new boyfriend from seeing them together on the street, and in its absence nothing fills the gap. In this sense, her impulses to self-destruct are easier to understand than some of those in GOON SQUAD, as a near-kid playing an adult game.

Phoebe sees her older sister as having participated in something that she will never access and having died with the secret to that freedom adulthood brings, but she died with a lot of other secrets as well, and as THE INVISIBLE CIRCUS gets deeper and weirder I got more invested in what she was going to find. If possible, read this book in one sitting (or as close to it as possible) because the last 100 pages or so are hard to look up from.

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