Cruel and Benevolent

Dominique Nabokov
Jennifer Egan, New York City, 2010

Jennifer Egan’s new novel is a moving humanistic saga, an enormous nineteenth-century-style epic brilliantly disguised as ironic postmodern pastiche. It has thirteen chapters, each an accomplished short story in its own right; characters who meander in and out of these chapters, brushing up against one another’s lives in unexpected ways; a time frame that runs from 1979 to the near, but still sci-fi, future; jolting shifts in time and points of view—first person, second person, third person, Powerpoint person; and a social background of careless and brutal sex, careless and brutal drugs, and carefully brutal punk rock. All of this might be expected to depict the broken, alienated angst of modern life as viewed through the postmodern lens of broken, alienated irony. Instead, Egan gives us a great, gasping, sighing, breathing whole.

Like her earlier work, it is dark and often cruel. But there is a new buoyancy to this novel as well—a buoyancy of tone, of technique. With great openness of spirit, fluency, and a comic vision that balances her sharp eye for the tragic, Egan has employed every playful device of the postmodern novel with such warmth and sensitivity that the genre is transcended completely. We are left with a narrative that is elegant, revealing, and urgent. Because the novel looks both forward and backward in time, and because the facts of its characters’ lives are doled out so unexpectedly, so fully out of the obvious sequence of events, the reader acquires an omniscience that is almost godlike, but is nevertheless shadowed with mystery. We know certain things must happen, will happen, essentially have happened, since the author is able to tell us so. But we don’t know how. Egan’s characters encompass not only their pasts but their futures as well.

In the first chapter, we meet Sasha, a thirty-five-year-old passing for twenty-eight who, we learn in a few casual asides, was abandoned by her father when she was six, lost a friend named Rob in college, went to NYU, and worked for twelve years for a record producer named Bennie Salazar. All of these subjects will arise again in later chapters, each one imperatively in the present tense, each one the story not of Sasha but of Rob or Bennie or one of the many other characters. And yet from Rob’s story, from Bennie’s, from Sasha’s uncle, we catch glimpses of Sasha, sometimes fleeting, sometimes rich and full. Egan turns her slowly in the light and lets us see a new facet of a person who becomes more and more interesting to us.

The book begins with Sasha recounting her most recent shoplifting exploit to her psychiatrist. Called “Found Objects,” it is a story of confusion and shame and thrilling excitement. Bits of the past lie enshrined on a table in Sasha’s small apartment, a source of…

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