As one of many readers who were captivated by Jennifer Egan's last book, the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit From the Goon Squad, I went scurrying back to her earlier novels, hungry for more. Fellow Goon fans won't be disappointed: 1995's The Invisible Circus, which has been re-released following this surge of interest in the American author, is just as insightful, taut, compelling and well written. It is, frankly, hard to believe it is a debut novel.
We're in San Francisco in 1978, with a lop-sided family. First, Phoebe's father died; a tragedy which sent her older sister, Faith – always the show-off, performing with reckless abandon to entertain her doting dad – further down a self-destructive path, and pursuing Sixties' radicalism to its most dangerously experimental extremes. Faith mysteriously killed herself while travelling in Italy; eight years later, 18-year-old Phoebe, haunted by her sister's death, decides to retrace her journey to find out what really happened.
The Invisible Circus is less formally inventive or clever-clever than Goon Squad, but it offers a superb in-depth exploration of the emotional lives of its characters. This stealthily mounts as you read – and you will want to gobble the novel down – until at the end there's a catharsis, and a feeling of having also been on a long journey. The emotional residue lingers in the mind. Yet, despite being so affecting, Egan rarely strays into sentimentality. (And with all those dead relatives and fragile young girls, it could so easily have been cloying.)
As also demonstrated in both Goon Squad and 2001's Look at Me, Egan can create a believable teenager. Phoebe suffers a recognisable feeling of invisibility, of arriving at the party too late (a sensation established with concrete literalism in the opening scene in which, thanks to a misprinted poster, she shows up to a music festival that's already finished). Trying to fit in with her peers feels like "mouthing the words to a song she'd never been taught, always a beat late". So Phoebe's journey round Europe is as much a journey to find herself as it is to find Faith, even though Egan's spry writing – and perhaps, in part, her own panicky experiences as a young backpacker – mean that it is rare for The Invisible Circus to feel steeped in "coming of age" cliché.
Where it does sometimes brush with cliché, or at least overstatement, is in her characters' obsessions with those departed loved ones. When Faith lies on a rooftop, looking up at the sky, she does not need to articulate "Maybe Dad can see us". It's the same with Phoebe's fixation with Faith: yes, Egan must demonstrate the all-consuming impact the death of this vivid girl has had on her younger sibling. But we get it early on, and it continues to be spelt out unnecessarily.
The novel is surprisingly suspenseful. Part two sees the timid Phoebe get into various nasty scrapes on her travels, and these provide crunchily tense interludes in what is otherwise a slightly listless mope around the Continent. In the most astonishing of these, Phoebe drops an acid tab in Paris and careers around the city attempting, literally, to break on through to the other side by smashing her head into a glass window. This is exhilarating writing, vivid and patterned without straying into embarrassing drugginess; as the trip develops, Egan's prose hurtles further down the rabbit hole, sentences extending into a stream of (very expanded) consciousness.
In part three, a chance meeting with someone who knew Faith sheds light on Phoebe's hunch that there was more to her suicide than met the eye. But this encounter also ends up powerfully shaping Phoebe herself.
Cue the romance. I couldn't possibly reveal the object of affection, but guess what? Egan's good on the sexy stuff, too. Phoebe's lack of comprehension during the early, physical stages of falling in love is captured with an adorable, ever so lightly knowing touch that catapults the reader back to those mysterious first-time feelings: "a curious malady had afflicted her, sensitizing every cell in her body to the point of agony"; "Phoebe battled a froth of nervous laughter that seemed continually on the verge of overflowing"; "she felt that shock of longing, like a heavy object plunging into deep water".
In the consummation of this burgeoning desire, there is – finally! – an expulsion of Faith, and an instance of self-realisation for Phoebe: "she would live a life. Until this moment she had never truly believed it." Summarised thus, and examined coldly, such a plot turn sounds unpalatable: Phoebe finds herself by sleeping with someone? Yet, with blazing honesty, Egan's prose conveys how a love affair can have a violent intensity, and gives full due to what a self-expanding experience sexual exploration can be. As a result, this section chimes truthfully and – like much of the novel – thoroughly seduces the reader, too.
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