01 September 2014

Nerdsville Book Club, August Edition: The Invisible Circus by Jennifer Egan

For my MA dissertation, I'm writing about American "drug fiction" in the 20th century, and its relationship to changing notions of the American Dream. By drug fiction, I mean narratives of addiction and/or drug use and experimentation. I'm basically analyzing how these works developed in parallel -- perhaps metaphorically so -- to the death and destruction of that grand, impossible dream as defined by numerous Caucasian, middle-aged men from 1931 and onwards (though, let's face it, it's always been a thing).

In my research, I came across The Invisible Circus by Jennifer Egan -- an author whom I've come to know and love since reading Look at Me, and then her 2011 Pulitzer-winning novel A Visit From the Goon Squad. The thing about Egan is that she has this incredible ability that totally sneaks up on you time after time. She takes a seemingly obvious idea -- like a supermodel losing her beauty and learning to live without it -- and ends up creating something that isn't obvious at all. Look at Me isn't some kind of feel-good story about a pretty girl who has to learn to not be pretty. It is about human reinvention and human deceit and the fact that we all do both the former and the latter. Every single day.

Invisible Circus is also about a lot of seemingly obvious things: like family; the loss of a loved one; betrayal; counterculture and its many youthful proponents. But it's also about (and this is just my opinion) the loss of that American Dream. Or maybe the punching admittance that we never achieved the dream in the first place. And that the people who fought for the "pure" (if you will) version of it -- meaning that loaded word, freedom -- are the ones who lost the most. Basically, Egan is like the female Hunter S. Thompson, who made a career out of writing about the death of the American Dream. Only she's a girl, and her writing is much more vulnerable. Not to be all gender-role-y, but in this case, it's true.

The novel follows Phoebe, a teenage girl in 1976 who travels to Europe with the hope of finding out the story of her sister's death. There are a lot of reasons I love this book, one of the simplest being that Faith (Phoebe's sister) reminds me so much of my own sister. Sometimes the similarities are a little too close for comfort, but that their lives and fates are so similar makes this one of those novels that is always going to matter to me. It's rare you meet someone like Faith or Christin: someone who possesses this almost supernatural lightness and humility and purity of soul. But if you can't have someone like that in your real life, you can at least have one in your literary life within this book.

Faith was very much of a product of the 1960's. You could call her a "hippie," although I really hate using that word because of all the negative, right-wing associations it's been branded with in the past five decades. But I guess she was. She fought for the end to war. She fought for freedom, as she understood it. She was one of the many student activists who believed things could be better -- who believed the American Dream could happen, if only all the horrid corruption and seediness and two-facedness would dissolve. And, of course, she took drugs as an outlet for experimentation and creative expression. To feel things more strongly and see things more passionately.

Egan isn't a "feel-good" writer, and The Invisible Circus isn't a "feel-good" book. But it's an important one. Sometimes we idealize the 1960's as being the closest we ever came to achieving the dream. At least, I know I do. Maybe it's because there's never been a time when what seemed like an entire generation banded together for one cause. Maybe it's because my favorite authors and musicians were creating so much beauty around that time. But it wasn't this perfect little snippet of history. There was corruption within the movement, just as much as there was corruption outside the movement. There was pain and there was destruction. The difference, as I see it, is that at the heart of things, counterculture dreaming was pure American Dreaming. At least, what American Dreaming was supposed to be before human beings got in the way.

The Invisible Circus shows how wrong it is to put the 1960's on a historical pedestal, yes. But it also shows how if you're going to idealize a decade, it may as well be that one. It's filled with a lot of moral conundrums. It's filled with a lot of grey, as opposed to black or white. But I guess that's also why I love it: because life isn't usually as simple or black or white. People tend to fall somewhere in between. Moments tend to fall somewhere in between. Just as these characters -- both the dead and the living -- are bubbles of deep grey.

I don't mean to make the entirety of this novel sound like one big metaphor. It is, to me. But that doesn't mean it will be to everyone. Like any good story, there's a lot to take away here. You can view it as a book about family -- one about love, loss, lust, longing. You can read it as a romantic tale. You can read it as a story about sisters, like In Her Shoes, only loads better. I read it as the story of a country that went wrong, despite good intent and wishful thinking, and the many causalities of said wrong-ness. But, hey, maybe it is just a screwed up little love story. And even if the latter is true, it's still a damn good read.

And as always, please check out reviews by my fellow nerds and readers:


  1. This sounds like a brilliant book it will definitely go on my to read list.

    1. Yay please do Vicky! It's an easy read as well, so completely worth it :) xx

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